Global Health Student Studies Nutrition Programs for Haitian Mothers and Children

By Buzz McClain

The irony of her part-time job and her academic ambitions is not lost on Karen Thomas. On nights and weekends, she’s a waitress at a local branch of the Cheesecake Factory, a restaurant chain famous for out-size portions of nutritionally dubious fare. By day, she’s a master’s candidate in public health with a concentration in global and community health. “I want to work with hunger and malnutrition issues,” she says.

Thomas, a New Jersey native and nutrition and anthropology graduate from the University of Delaware, has amassed experience feeding sick and hungry women and children in Haiti, where she’s visited three times in two years, including a six-month stint at a nonprofit hospital in Bombardopolis, northwest of earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince. “The whole experience was very, very emotional,” she says. “The isolation, the hurricanes, and cholera—I was surrounded by death.”

Mason graduate student Karen Thomas at work in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Karen Thomas.

One of her jobs was to take vital signs and measurements of women and children to determine whether they were eligible for a nutrition relief program. “And if they were, we’d supply food every month,” she says. “There are a lot of complex problems there, but if people aren’t eating well and working to their full potential, they’re never going to be able to solve the other problems. I know I can’t solve all these problems, but I can give you food and you won’t be hungry. That’s something I can do.”

And yet, the experience led her to conclude that the current system was lacking. “Giving starving children and mothers food for three months isn’t really solving anything. Food programs provide food for a short amount of time and then they’re required to go off the program. Then they get really sick again and come back and do it again. What’s that solving? It’s not sustainable and it’s not solving anything. That was a huge frustration for me.”

Thomas was accepted into Mason’s master’s program while she was in Haiti, and at first, once she began her studies, she wondered whether she was doing the right thing. “When I first got into the program I was defeated,” she says. “I wondered why I was learning all this stuff, and relearning it, and taking tests of things that I was doing in the field and getting practical experience.”

Mason public health student Karen Thomas gathered nutrition information on mothers and children while working on two different trips to Haiti. Photo courtesy of Karen Thomas.

One of her mentors, Mason global and community health professor Joshua G. Rosenberger, recognized the frustration but put things in context for her. “It’s that idea that if you work with the system, and within it to a degree, it’ll allow you the opportunity to work outside the system later,” he says. “But if you don’t go through this process first you might find yourself with no opportunity. In other words, if you don’t do it, it will ultimately close doors in this process instead of opening them.”

When Thomas described her work in Haiti, which involved interviewing 200 Haitian patients about their nutrition sources and habits, Rosenberger, who teaches health behavior theory, research methods, and health promotion, recognized that “she was already doing research unknowingly, and I suggested she think about capturing some of this in a more scientific-academic way. She could write this up as data and present it at conferences and present it as actual research.”

The two meet once a week for an hour to “help her craft her data for a peer-reviewed publication, but what’s really come out of our meetings are more conceptual conversations: What is it you want to do? How can this trajectory help you get to that point?” he says. “Potentially this has the possibility of helping her get funding, allocating resources, and doing things that directly affect the population she’s interested in helping in Haiti.”

“Being at Mason helped formulate my ideas, and expand them,” Thomas says. “Mason is giving me the guidelines that I’m going to need in the real world to, say, form a nonprofit, to get funding, or get anyone to take me seriously. I feel like it’s rounding out my education.”

Mason came through in another way as well: Her two-month return to Haiti this past summer was partially financed by the College of Health and Human ServicesSkolnik Global Health Award, a $2,000 “international experience award,” she says. “They want someone who is going to go out in the field and do something.”

Which, clearly, Thomas has been doing, and says she’ll continue to do. “From a really young age, I knew I wanted to serve people and do good,” she says.

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