To support the need for additional capacity of advance nutrition professionals within Ethiopia, the former USAID ENGINE project awarded Ph.D. scholarships to eight students to undertake their doctoral studies through a dual-degree program implemented by Jimma University in collaboration with several European Universities. The University of Ghent in Belgium served as the lead university, with other European universities including Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Hohenheim University in Germany all supporting students as well. The first two of the eight candidates completed their program and were awarded the degree in 2018. This series will include interviews with the doctoral graduates, in no assigned order, to discuss their experiences, future goals and advice for other students.
Ph.D. Interview #1: Dr. Abdulhalik Workicho
- Please tell us about yourself: My name is Abdulhalik Workicho. I am a young public health professional who graduated from Hawassa University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health. I also have completed graduate studies at Jimma University with an MPH degree in Epidemiology before beginning my Ph.D. program. I have been working at Jimma University for several years in a variety of academic positions. Currently, I am working as an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and my main responsibilities are teaching epidemiology and research methodology for undergraduate and graduate level medical and health sciences students and supervising graduate students in their research projects.
- Why did you want to pursue a Ph.D. in Nutrition?: My interest was driven mainly by two factors. The first is the extent of the unaddressed nutritional problems among both women and children in Ethiopia. It is well documented that a significant portion of the population suffer from multiple forms of malnutrition, with women and children being the prime victims. This is costing the country billions of dollars from its economy. My motivation to contribute evidence on the extent of the problem and contribute to possible solutions was one of the main reasons for me to pursue a Ph.D. To this end, my study specifically focused on the nutritional status of adolescent pregnancies and how it translates affects the health and nutrition of their infants. The other reason was the appeal of a conducive Ph.D. platform, created by the ENGINE project through facilitating the collection of primary research data and covering my scholarship for studying in Belgium.
- What was your experience during your Ph.D. program, what did you find most challenging and beneficial in the program?: As anyone who passes through it knows, pursuing a Ph.D. is both a stressful and a joyful process, and I found this to be true of my experience as well. The expectations to work independently and produce very high-quality work can create a great deal of stress and pressure. Therefore, support from family and friends is so important to keep sane and not give up. In this regard, I was very lucky that I had very supportive friends and family. Apart from this, I also greatly enjoyed the opportunities which come along with the work, such as working with researchers of different experiences, learning new skills, communicating my research findings and acknowledgment of my work. I have had a lot of positive experiences which have shaped my views and experience, not only in my scientific career but also in working with people of different backgrounds.
- Did you find any surprising research findings from dissertation topics? If so, which ones?: My research mainly focused on adolescent pregnancies and the nutritional consequences related to both the mother and the infants. It is surprising that a large number of adolescent girls still get pregnant despite the legal age for marriage for both boys and girls being 18 years and above. The study findings indicated that these mothers suffer from multiple forms of undernutrition which critically affects their offspring. As in many other earlier studies, the results from our study also confirm the adverse birth outcomes related to young maternal age. However, the health and nutritional needs of adolescents in general, and adolescent pregnancies in particular, don’t get the level of attention needed in various programs in the country.
- Which of the findings do you think are most useful to inform nutrition program or policies such as Growth through Nutrition program and how?: Addressing nutritional needs of adolescent girls is specifically important in breaking the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition in a population. In addition to the focus on the first 1000 days, it is imperative to target the second window of opportunity during adolescence. The burden during this period exponentiates if the girl becomes pregnant. Therefore, programs working towards improving maternal and child nutrition and health need to address adolescent pregnancies as one of their critical population group. Economic and educational empowerment of adolescents, avoiding gender disparities and ensuring social safety nets are all important approaches for improvement of the nutritional status of adolescents specifically and of the population at large.
- How does this Ph.D. support your future plans? What is the greatest benefit of achieving your Ph.D.?: My ambitions are to contribute to evidence-based decision making in various programs targeting maternal and child health and nutrition in Ethiopia and elsewhere. To this end, the knowledge and skills I have acquired during my study will help me generate strong evidence as well as synthesize existing evidence to better inform decision making and practices. As an academic, I also plan to share my skills and build capacity through the research I will be conducting and lectures I will be providing. Given that the Ph.D. is the terminal academic degree one can peruse, achieving it gives me confidence in whatever task I need to accomplish. It also has helped me identify my potential skills and how I can apply them to contribute to and build my career.
- Any advice for students who are considering doing their Ph.D. in nutrition programs?: Due to its widespread effects, nutrition has been a focus of various programs and interventions for so long. Much research has been also conducted in the field with objectives ranging from exploring the extent of the problem to finding effective intervention methods. Given that the problem of malnutrition is still pertinent to our population, it is important to conduct research that can strongly contribute to solving the problem. In order to do this, researchers/Ph.D. students need to give due attention to the conceptualization of their research question through adequate mapping of the existing evidence. They also need to create and use available platforms to disseminate their important findings so that they can be understood and adopted. In addition, the secret to learning new knowledge and skill is to be proactive and to work in a team. Therefore, students need to take every opportunity available to learn through teamwork and their individual effort so that they can excel in their knowledge and skills.