Incoming Royster Society Fellow Draws on Experience in Burkina Faso

August 18, 2016

Carolina graduate student and Peace Corps volunteer Charlotte Lane

Charlotte Lane left her heart in West Africa. But she will return there to begin her life’s work after honing her knowledge and research skills at Carolina.

Lane, one of 24 incoming recipients of a five-year fellowship with the Graduate School’s Royster Society of Fellows, is a graduate student in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“After receiving my degree, I hope to go back to West Africa and work in the development community,’’ Lane said. “I love the people and the culture there. I want to spend my life working on locally relevant nutrition interventions that make sustainable and long-term differences to the community. At least, that’s the plan so far.”

Lane recently arrived in Chapel Hill after more than two years working as a Peace Corps Community Health volunteer in Burkina Faso. After she graduated from Harvard University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in human evolutionary biology with a minor in global health and health policy, Lane wanted to study primates.

“I realized that I could not spend my life sitting behind a desk at a normal office job. I wanted to DO something,” Lane said.

Her father encouraged her to apply for the Peace Corps as a way to learn more about Africa.

What’s Happening There?

In Burkina Faso, Lane soon became consumed by a new interest. She saw many malnourished children, including her host family’s daughter. Lane said that the girl was often lethargic, not as active as a typical 2-year-old. The family, relatively well-off compared to most villagers, also had a “beautiful, fat 6-year-old boy,” Lane said.

“What’s happening there?” she thought. “I wanted to learn everything I could about the situation; how it arose, what the consequences would be for my host sister and most importantly, how to prevent it.”

She finished her training and left her host family for the village of Guena, one hour west of Bobo-Dioulasso.

At Guena, she worked with the Food Security Task Force and focused on nutrition projects. She also cultivated a group of girls, ranging from teens to the infants in their care. Her work included establishing nutrition education programs, gardening lessons and the Peace Corps “Let Girls Learn” initiative. But the project she takes the most pride in is a well dug through 17 meters of granite. It’s her favorite because people in her village solved problems, managed the work of the heavy machinery and made the well a success.

“The confidence and ownership achieved through this is my proudest accomplishment,” Lane said. She also saw some political unrest, witnessed the country’s first democratic presidential election and learned French and the trade language Djula.

When Lane decided to find a doctoral education in nutrition, she researched graduate programs and found Linda Adair. Adair, a professor in the Department of Nutrition in Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, is an expert on international nutrition and nutritional epidemiology.

“I found Linda’s work and realized that it was what I needed to know in order to go back to West Africa and be productive,” the Buffalo, New  York, native said. “The research conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill is fascinating and motivational. It addresses real problems in nutrition and health through a productive and concrete approach. I want to be a part of that.”

Adair arranged for Lane to work out of the Carolina Population Center, where she can be with others with shared interests such as faculty fellows Peggy Bentley, Chamblee Distinguished Professor of nutrition, and associate dean for global health, and associate director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, and Amanda Thompson, associate professor of anthropology.

“In the classroom, we can talk about research theoretically but we don’t typically have students like Charlotte who have been in these settings,” Adair said. “They bring an incredible richness to the discussion. Charlotte also has the academic background and was engaged in research as an undergraduate.”

Adair said that Lane has “jumped right in” to clean up data from research in Rwanda.

“It’s wonderful to have that level of enthusiasm,” Adair said. “She started working on this data cleanup, which can be a drudgery, and she comes in to say ‘that’s fun!’ I’m very pleased it worked out for her to come here.”

The Royster Society is the Graduate School’s select interdisciplinary fellowship program. It attracts exceptional graduate students from around the world, provides generous financial funding, offers unique opportunities to excel and creates innovative approaches to scholarship.

By Scott Jared