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Released March 23, 2005

SOUTHERN MISS DOCTORAL STUDENT TEAMS UP
WITH SOME OF THE WORLD'S TOP SCIENTISTS

Hattiesburg- A doctoral student at The University of Southern Mississippi is joining forces with one of the world's most prestigious research institutes to help ease suffering in East Africa.

Murugi Ndirangu, a graduate research assistant for the Delta Nutrition Project in

the Department of Nutrition and Food Systems, has received a postdoctoral grant from the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Ndirangu was one of eight students out of 200 candidates worldwide selected to participate in the institute's Earth Fellows Program-a two-year program that seeks to reduce environmental ruin, hunger and disease, particularly in nations battling extreme poverty.

Ndirangu views the program as an opportunity to help tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic devastating her native country of Kenya, located just off the East African coast.

"I am not infected with HIV, but I am affected by HIV," said Ndirangu. "I have friends and family members in my community (in Kenya) who are being decimated by the disease."

More than 1 million adults and more than 100,000 children in Kenya are infected with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers say the numbers will continue to skyrocket due to malnutrition, lack of education and economic instability.

Such grim outlooks prompted Ndirangu to apply for the Earth Fellows Program in November-just one month before the Dec. 1 deadline. To ensure admission, the former teacher had to submit a research proposal that proved relevant to the overall goal of the Earth Institute.

"My proposal was examining the link between nutrition and programs that are community based for people with HIV in Kenya," said Ndirangu.

As fate would have it, the institute was working on a similar program called the "Millennium Project"-a United Nations-sponsored initiative seeking to devise the best technological and financial strategies in hopes of reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women by 2015.

Unaware of the connection, Ndirangu said she waited "on pins and needles" for an answer on whether or not she had made the cut.

"After I applied I thought, 'What was I thinking?'" Ndirangu said. "Especially when I learned that past fellows had come from Harvard and Princeton."

While Ndirangu awaited the outcome, her educational background, letters of recommendation and long-term goals were undergoing strict review by the institute's Fellows Committee.

It was not until January that Ndirangu learned she'd be among the eight chosen to take part in the program. The first-time applicant was granted a fellowship that includes a $7,000 start-up research allowance the first year, a $5,000 allowance for the second year, and an annual salary of almost $48,000.

Dr. Kathy Yadrick, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Systems at Southern Miss, believes Ndirangu will be an outstanding fellow for Columbia University. Ndirangu has worked alongside Yadrick for the past three years.

"Her experience in community nutrition planning and assessment has been such an asset," said Yadrick. "She has used her skills to design our evaluation process for the community intervention we are undertaking in the Mississippi Delta."

Ndirangu said she has always had a fascination with nutrition. After earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in home economics at Kenyatta University in Kenya, Ndirangu studied for a degree in international food science and nutrition at Ghent University in Belgium.

Eager to learn more, Ndirangu came to the United States to earn her doctorate at Southern Miss. She said she had heard about the Delta Nutrition Project and wanted to be a part of it. The researcher credits the program for her biggest accomplishment to date.

"The nutrition and food systems Ph.D. program and the Delta Nutrition Project have given me great insight into the development of community-based nutrition interventions," Ndirangu said. "I have gained direct hands-on experience working with communities in the Mississippi Delta-experience that will be very useful to my work at the Earth Institute."

Ndirangu's first day at the institute is Sept. 1.

For more information on the Delta Nutrition Project or Columbia University's Earth Institute, contact Murugi Ndirangu at (601) 266-5312.

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April 13, 2005 4:11 PM