I get around is one of our regular series. Every month, Association members tell stories of where they are, what they are doing, who they have met, and why they believe or hope they are doing valuable work. This month we have Ana Lucia Mayen, telling us about her experiences in Guatemala and working as an intern for the UN in Geneva, and how this has influenced her ongoing and future research focus.
Studying abroad had always been a clear idea in my mind. But which master’s degree should I choose? It was very obvious to me: coming from a developing country where almost half of the population lives in poverty and at least 25% in extreme poverty, public health was the right choice. The alarming rates of stunting (chronic undernutrition) in the country (49.8%) made it clear that I had to do something about it.
I had already learned about the country’s vulnerability to climate phenomena, especially in 2009 when I worked with the Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO). In that year, we experienced a severe drought caused by “el Niño phenomenon”, which caused a loss in maize and beans crops. This led to an emergency situation in the food security throughout the country, especially in rural areas. An increase in the prevalence of wasting (severe acute undernutrition) in children under 5 years old was evident. After this crisis, the prevalence of wasting in the country was significantly reduced and we have less than 2% in the country. However, the rate of stunting is still a major challenge that needs to be addressed.
These facts convinced me that the right way to have an impact on the country’s nutrition situation was through the public health sector. Studying a master´s degree at Universitat Pompeu Fabra/Autónoma de Barcelona was the right choice. The very thing that comes to my mind when I recall my year in beautiful Barcelona is the immense richness of the delightful Spanish culture. I particularly loved their personal autonomy and security in their own values and perspectives. Indeed, I needed to come back to my country and show the world that we can also increase our value towards our indigenous people and mayan heritage.
How could we improve the nutrition of indigenous people (the majority of the population in my country), in a large scale? This question has been in my mind for a long time. The strong international support towards Guatemala with many NGOs and funding towards development has been the basis of many interventions against stunting, but how to scale up the impact and effectiveness of interventions?
Timing couldn’t be more in agreement with stunting decrease in Guatemala. The political will and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement have opened many doors and led to strategic plans and large impact decisions that will affect the lives of thousands or even millions of Guatemalan children. This is what I learned in my next stop, as an intern at the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN), hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO). The valuable experiences and knowledge that I was able to learn as an intern were priceless, including Dr. David Navarro’s speeches regarding the SUN movement, that have impacted my life forever.
Coming back home to Guatemala after Switzerland was a good idea. It led me to a job position at INCAP Comprehensive Center for the Prevention of Chronic Diseases (CIIPEC). Yes, stunting is a big problem in the country. But what about the rising prevalence of overweight and obesity in children, adolescents and mothers in this country? I had never thought about this before. And what about all those lessons in my master’s degree about health prevention and stopping the health system from being curative towards preventing diseases? How to convince the politicians and the government about acting to prevent chronic diseases? Working at CIIPEC gave me a new perspective of the nutrition reality in the country: the double burden of the disease. This means in simple words: “over and undernutrition coexisting together”.
It was hard to be convinced that I should only focus in stunting, since it is a major problem in our nutrition reality now. Working in an UN organization sounded like the dream, after interning at UNSCN. However, working at CIIPEC made me realize that research is very much needed before starting any kind of intervention. This reminded me of several people that worked at WHO and also participated in scientific research which led the interventions in the partner countries, including Dr. Denise Costa Coitinho and Dr. Mercedes de Onis. All of this convinced me that the next step is to get a PhD in order to jointly do research and implement interventions that have been proven to be successful in developing countries.
In order to prepare for a PhD abroad, my work at CIIPEC has been extremely valuable, allowing me to meet the right people and to experiment how to do research. It also led me to an internship at University of Michigan, where I was able to audit two courses and to do some research with amazing people of whom I have learned immensely. One of my tasks at University of Michigan was to participate in the database cleaning of the study “Dietetic Factors associated with Cardiovascular Disease Risk in school aged children and their parents in Mesoamerica“.
After all of this valuable experience, I recently got accepted for a PhD in Public Health in the University of Lausanne jointly with the Swiss School of Public Health, which will be my next adventure starting this September. I will explain in further detail all of the experiences mentioned above in the future I get around columns.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and should not be taken to be those of the Association.
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