When Julia De Bruyn first started studying vet science, she never expected to find herself years later doing research to improve children’s nutrition in rural African communities.
As undergraduate vet students, marching dutifully from wildlife lectures to clinical pathology tutorials to overnight shifts caring for racehorses, rabbits and rottweilers, we were told that our degree could take us anywhere. We would be open-minded, multi-skilled problem-solvers. Little did I know, however, that within four years of graduating with a degree in Veterinary Science I would be taking a job on a research project aiming to improve children’s nutrition in rural African communities.
We are seeking to provide access to more nutritious diets and improve the growth of young children
For the last three years, I’ve been part of an interdisciplinary research team working to strengthen food and nutrition security in Tanzania and Zambia, through veterinary and agricultural interventions.
Our project, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and led by the University of Sydney, is establishing community-based chicken vaccination programs and introducing improved crop varieties and management practices. By reducing mortality in chickens and increasing agricultural production, we are seeking to provide access to more nutritious diets and improve the growth of young children.
When I joined this project as a research assistant, I was naïve to the potential contributions of small free-range chicken flocks in African communities. Their low cost and low requirements for labour and other inputs make chickens the most accessible form of livestock for people living in poverty. Nutrient-rich foods of animal origin have the potential to greatly improve the quality of human diets, but when the risk of losing chickens to seasonal disease outbreaks is high, chickens and eggs are rarely consumed.
My PhD research in Tanzania has identified a significant, positive association between chicken ownership and children’s height. I am continuing to explore pathways by which this effect is mediated, but the finding of improved growth in children from households which keep chickens – an association not present for cattle, goats or sheep – is promising.
I’ve recently returned from a three-week stint of qualitative data collection in Tanzania, speaking to women about their experiences raising poultry, caring for their children and dealing with periods of food scarcity. My appreciation of the complexity of research in this setting is constantly growing and I feel fortunate to spend time in our project sites, learning about the challenges, beliefs and resilience of people in these areas.
I love traversing the Rift Valley in our trusty Landcruiser, washed twice-daily by our dedicated driver (who laughs incredulously when I tell him that my own ancient car is washed twice-yearly). I love the rapid-fire car conversations, which I attempt to follow with my patchy Swahili vocabulary, and the uproar of laughter as we bounce along dusty tracks. I don’t love the blazing sun or the occasional spider encounters – but I appreciate that my Tanzanian colleagues are aware of my pale skin and arachnophobia, and look out for my welfare.
I feel fortunate to spend time in our project sites, learning about the challenges, beliefs and resilience of people in these areas
Integrated, interdisciplinary research is central to addressing current global challenges, such as tackling the continuing high rates of child under-nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. My PhD supervisory team includes a veterinarian, a medical doctor and public health nutritionist, a social anthropologist and a biostatistician. I’ve strayed far from where I imagined my veterinary degree would take me, but I feel enthusiastic and inspired about what lies ahead.
Learn about Julia's research project.
This article was originally published as part of the #USYDonTour series.