Jennifer Aiyer named second fellow for Sharma family endowed scholarship

Sharmas and Jennifer Aiyer
Shreela Sharma, Jennifer Aiyer and Vibhu Sharma

HOUSTON – Houston doctoral student Jennifer Aiyer, MPH, has been selected as the second Sharma Fellow, supported by the Sharma Endowed Fund for Excellence in Community Nutrition, Health and 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 organization 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.

Aiyer is pursuing her doctorate in epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, with plans to graduate in spring 2022. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Texas Christian University and an MPH in epidemiology from UTHealth School of Public Health.

“This fellowship will allow Jenny to expand her experiences in community-level research as she begins her doctoral studies,” says Deanna Hoelscher, PhD, RDN, the endowed fund’s principal investigator. “Her background as a pediatric dietitian allowed her to see problems incurred from unhealthy diet and obesity on a firsthand basis. We are excited that she will have the opportunity to now pursue solutions to the problems she faced during her clinical work.” Hoelscher is director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, and regional dean of UTHealth School of Public Health’s campus in Austin.

Aiyer says she was drawn to public health after working as a registered dietitian in county-provided healthcare, and she was led back to school to study services management where she quickly discovered her passion for research.

“Well-designed research allows us to push the envelope on health and health disparities by investigating important questions,” says Aiyer. “In my case, an interest in nutrition and obesity in underserved populations.”

With support from the Sharma fellowship, Aiyer hopes to take her knowledge to the next level and apply it to create her own research questions and investigations in the context of the Brighter Bites program.

“I specifically came back to UTHealth to study public health so that I could combine it with my background in nutrition to investigate meaningful questions,” says Aiyer. “To improve, delay, or eliminate the very lifestyle-affected diseases I helped patients manage in the beginning of my career.”

Shreela Sharma is an associate professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in the 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.