Melinda Rushing named first fellow for Sharma family endowed scholarship

Sharma fellow 2018
(Pictured from left to right) Shreela Sharma, PhD, Melinda Rushing and Vibhu Sharma.

HOUSTON – Houston doctoral student Melinda Rushing has been selected as the first Sharma Fellow, supported by the Sharma Endowed Fund for Excellence in Community Nutrition, Health & Wellness at The University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth) at Houston School of Public Health. 

In 2017, faculty member and alumna Shreela Sharma, PhD, along with her husband Vibhu Sharma, established the $200,000 scholarship endowment, which includes a matching donation from the UTHealth Game Changers Fund. The fellowship program is administered through the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, part of UTHealth School of Public Health.

Fellows receive a $2,000 stipend per semester, are eligible for in-state tuition and work with Brighter Bites, a nonprofit whose mission is to create communities of health through fresh food. Brighter Bites channels surplus produce and nutrition education materials into underserved communities with the goal of changing behavior among children and their parents to prevent obesity and achieve long-term health. The program operates in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Southwest Florida, Washington D.C. and New York City. The competitive fellowship program requires a research commitment of two semesters, at 200 hours per semester.

Rushing is pursuing her doctorate in health promotion and behavioral sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, with plans to graduate in spring 2021. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in social work from the University of Houston.

“Melinda is an excellent choice for the Sharma Fellowship. We were impressed with her background in social work, along with her strong work ethic and her passion for nutrition. In addition, the work experience with Brighter Bites will build on her interest in working with underserved populations to prevent chronic diseases,” says Hoelscher, PhD, RD, the endowed fund’s principal investigator, and director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living on the School of Public Health’s campus in Austin.

Rushing says she was drawn to public health while working as a hospital social worker, when she realized how health went beyond managing illnesses. She developed an interest in access to care, health education, and community interventions to promote health and health disparities among African Americans.

“I saw how there were systematic issues as well as generational practices that had huge impacts on our health individually and as a community,” Rushing says. “I worked as a social worker, but the impact I wanted to make was not going to happen unless I was trained in public health.”

With support from the Sharma fellowship, Rushing hopes to learn how to develop innovative community-based initiatives that combat childhood obesity and promote nutrition. Her career goals include research, teaching and launching a research institution that focuses on health disparities in minorities, with a local and global focus.

“I hope to do work in Africa by partnering with local leaders to improve sickle cell care in clinics,” Rushing says. “I also hope to bring interventions or expand different interventions in the Sunnyside area of Houston to address childhood obesity and overall nutrition. The community is predominantly African-American and I really want to see change among my people when it comes to how we view nutrition and manage our health.”

Shreela Sharma is an associate professor in the UTHealth School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences and works with the school’s Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. She is co-founder of Brighter Bites, alongside Lisa Helfman. Vibhu Sharma is vice president of advanced applications at Wood PLC, a global engineering firm.

— Written by Anissa Anderson Orr