HOUSTON – Houston doctoral student Brittni Naylor has been selected as the third 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, RDN, 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.
Naylor is pursuing her doctorate in epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, with plans to graduate in fall 2020. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Louisiana State University (LSU) and a master’s degree in public health from the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston.
“This fellowship will allow Brittni to expand her experiences in public health nutrition research as she continues her doctoral studies. She has witnessed health problems stemming from unhealthy diet and obesity in her community on a firsthand basis. We are excited that she will have the opportunity to now pursue solutions to these problems.” says Deanna Hoelscher, PhD, RDN, director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, and regional dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health’s campus in Austin.
Naylor says she was drawn to public health after conducting research on a vaccine candidate for malaria while at LSU. She started her MPH program in Houston focusing on infectious diseases when she attended the Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship.
“Although I cannot remember the speaker, I vividly remember her presentation and how I felt once it was over. I walked out of her presentation on childhood obesity and realized, I found my true passion, nutrition with a focus on childhood obesity among minorities,” says Naylor. “Evidence shows that African American and Hispanic children have the highest prevalence rates of obesity in the United States and frankly, the trend extends into adulthood. In order to combat this rising epidemic, we have to continuously research and educate through interventions and community-based initiatives.”
With support from the Sharma fellowship, Naylor hopes to learn more about childhood obesity and nutrition, diving deeper into the socio-demographics across different cities within the United States and discover what is driving the inequity that is seen in the African American community in regard to childhood obesity.
“I hope to determine why African American families are a high priority at-risk population for childhood obesity. Hopefully this information can be used as groundwork for future childhood obesity prevention interventions,” says Naylor.
Shreela Sharma is a 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 CEO of Viska Ventures, a firm that focuses on Mergers and Acquisitions in technology and digital transformation, and Board Chairman of Sprayproof Systems, a US patented preventive maintenance device maker for Environmental Health and Safety.