UT Multi-Disciplinary Team Awarded National Science Foundation Grant

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The UT Kenya Team meeting with their collaborators at Kenyatta University, located in Nairobi, Kenya.

KNOXVILLE—The newly formed Kenya Team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, believes that the best medicine for the physical and emotional ills that poverty inflicts on children is a strong bond between a child and caregiver.

This team of researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recently received an $89,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish an international collaboration with the Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s (OVC) Projects and Kenyatta University to study the effects of child-caregiver attachment to the overall well-being of children in the slum communities of Nairobi, Kenya. The goal: develop a way for community health care workers to assess child-caregiver attachment as a standard component of primary health care.

Hillary Fouts and Carin Neitzel, both assistant professors in child and family studies; with Dr. Paul Erwin, professor and director of the Department of Public Health; Denise Bates, assistant professor in public health; and Fletcher Njororai, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Public Health, have partnered to create the UT Kenya Team to look at child-caregiver attachment and how it may buffer the negative influence of poverty.

Denise Bates, assistant professor of public health, touring the slums of Nairobi with community healthcare workers.

The team got involved with OVC when Erwin’s mentor in international health, John Bryant, and his wife, Nancy, visited UT two years ago.

Working with UN Habitat, the Bryants had helped develop the OVC project to provide primary health care to orphans and vulnerable children in the slums of Nairobi where thousands of extremely impoverished families live. They wanted to find a way to assess child-caregiver attachment as part of their community health care, and they felt that UT could help them devise an assessment tool. Adding this component to their community health services will make OVC unique among many child health and development projects working in Kenya.

Last winter, the UT team spent several months putting together a proposal for the NSF grant, and then spent spring break in Nairobi, accompanying OVC and Kenyatta University personnel as they made home visits. During the summer, two faculty and two graduate students conducted more pilot research.

Dr. Paul Erwin, professor and director of the UT’s department of public health, meeting families in one of the most impoverished slums on Nairobi.

The grant will allow the UT team to travel to Nairobi to research and explore cultural variations in child-caregiver attachment in areas where everyone is poor. This work could help them secure additional grant funding for the project in the future.

With the socioeconomic status a constant variable, the study will allow researchers to isolate the potential impact of different cultural child-rearing styles in child-caregiver attachment.

OVC reaches a large percentage of the population through local community health workers who provide basic preventive healthcare.

There are twenty-four part-time healthcare workers making visits to more than 2,500 households to weigh children, check nutrition status, advise mothers about feeding and nutrition, and provide info about insecticide-impregnated bed nets and hand washing with soap.

This month, Fouts, Bates and Erwin travel to Kenya to begin training workers, meet their counterparts at Kenyatta University, identify faculty and students for research and plan a workshop to be held in March.

Next summer, more students and faculty will research in Nairobi and the team will start working on grant submission for a follow-up grant.

Clockwise from the bottom: OVC developers Nancy and Jack Bryant, UT faculty members Carin Neitzel, Hillary Fouts, Paul Erwin, and Fletcher Njorora at a planning session with some of their Kenyan counterparts in Mlolongo, a slum area where the group is doing the project.

Erwin said this project ties into UT’s Top 25 Initiative in a variety of ways: It can serve as a powerful recruitment tool for undergraduates who want to do research. It already involves three master’s students and one doctoral student in research that will be used in their theses and dissertations. It provides opportunities that will attract and retain faculty interested in global health, and the research could lead to a larger follow-up grant that would support extensive research for years to come.

Lacreisha Ejike-King, a graduate assistant on the project, said spending the summer in Kenya was a phenomenal experience, both educationally and personally.

“Overall, I think that this collaborative grant project will greatly enhance the UT student experience by providing opportunities for practical field experience to supplement the topics learned in the classroom,” she said, adding that the experience opened her eyes to poverty’s “strong impact on physical, mental and social health.”

C O N T A C T :

Stephanie Dixon (865-974-2125, sdixon7@utk.edu)

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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