Interview with Katie Beck, Nutrition specialist

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Beginning our conversation, would you first tell us briefly about yourself professionally and socially?

I am from New Jersey in the U.S. which, for those people who might not have heard of it, is close to New York. I studied Nutrition and Food Sciences during my undergraduate and then worked in hospitals as a nutritionist after, counseling patients on how to eat well who had diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions. I decided I wanted to work more on “bigger picture” issues, not only with individual patients, so I went to graduate school for a Master in Public Health. Both of my undergraduate and graduate studies I did in New York City. I have been married now for four years and my husband has actually been able to move to Rwanda with me and travels from here to other places for work!

Can you tell us a little more about what you exactly do at PIH-IMB as a Nutrition Specialist?

As Nutrition Specialist at PIH/IMB I am in charge of the nutrition programming in the organization. I work with Vianney Bihibindi, the Nutrition Program Coordinator, and much of the work that we focus on is related to infant and child nutrition, particularly children who face acute malnutrition or wasting. We train and mentor health workers who are treating cases with acute malnutrition at hospitals and health centers. We have also been trying to focus on the neonatal period and improving nutrition early. We are doing this through improving breastfeeding in neonatology and nutrition in the children enrolled in Pediatric Development Clinics. We also work with the POSER team to ensure we are doing nutrition-sensitive agriculture work and that our POSER beneficiaries and POSER lead and model farmers are knowledgeable about nutrition too.

How has been working in the Nutrition field in Rwanda been different in other countries where you have worked before?

Prior to working in Rwanda the only country I had really spent time on working in nutrition is the U.S. I did some research work in Uganda during my graduate program, where many of the same issues that exist in Rwanda were also seen in Uganda. In the U.S. our biggest issue in nutrition is obesity and chronic diseases, such as diabetes. This is different than some of the work I do currently at PIH/IMB, but as Rwanda is transitioning into a higher urban population and the GDP increases, Rwanda could also begin to face more of these issues that you typically see in high income countries, like obesity.

Do you mind helping some of our audience understand the difference between malnutrition and undernutrition, are they in anyway related or totally different?

Sure! Undernutrition is a type of malnutrition. Undernutrition refers to things like wasting (acute malnutrition), or stunting, also called chronic malnutrition. It could also refer to vitamin and mineral deficiencies too, which can cause conditions like anemia. Over nutrition, or obesity, is a type of malnutrition, as well. Even though a person who is obese might not seem “malnourished” they are likely also not getting the proper balance of nutrients because they are perhaps consuming too much or eating foods that are not good for your health. So this is still a type of malnutrition.

What has been your biggest highlight or milestone working as a Nutrition Specialist at PIH-IMB, and do you mind sharing any biggest challenge you have faced as well?

My biggest highlight since working at PIH/IMB was probably during my first year where I was able to spend a lot of time doing mentorship at the health centers with our MCH mentors. We had trained hospital mentors who were pediatric nurses or midwives to also be able to support mentorship in malnutrition programs at the health center. And although it wasn’t their educational background to know about malnutrition, all of the mentors I worked with were really passionate about learning and enjoyed teaching others. Being able to watch them work and work with them has been one of my biggest highlights.

I think one of the biggest challenges in this work is prioritizing certain populations to receive support from our nutrition program. We work across many areas, such as NCDs, HIV, mental health, maternal and child health, but we have to also decide where is the biggest need and where can we make the biggest impact. Figuring out how to do that well can be a challenge!

You joined PIH-IMB as Global Health Corps Fellow, and you were retained immediately after serving your fellowship, how did you feel about the offer, what do you think was the biggest motivation for PIH-IMB to retain you, and what would be your advice to the fellows (current and incoming), in regard to this?

I was really excited! When I first came to Rwanda through the Global Health Corps fellowship I thought I would only stay for one year. But as I was getting to 6 months at PIH/IMB I was feeling like one year was not going to be enough to really get to see an impact from the work I was doing or complete the projects I was working on. I started to let my supervisor know that I would be interested in staying if PIH/IMB was thinking that they would also like me to stay. I of course also had to convince my husband but he was very supportive! I think the biggest motivation for PIH/IMB to retain me was that it was the right time. PIH global had made a commitment to the Four Zeros and zero deaths from acute malnutrition was one of them. I think the leadership at PIH/IMB felt that we needed to invest more in nutrition if we wanted to be part of making sure we are upholding this commitment. For incoming fellows, I would advise them to be open with their supervisor about their career goals and plans from an early phase. It’s important to make sure the dialogue stays open and opportunities are not missed due to lack of communication. I would also say don’t be fearful of telling your supervisor the skills and experience you have that you think can contribute to the organization – it’s ok to advocate for yourself too!

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