Camille Elyse Jones is tackling food and nutrition insecurity and assessing health outcomes for mothers and infants in rural South India. A Cornell University second year PhD student, Dean’s Excellence Graduate Fellow, and National Institutes of Health Trainee in Maternal and Child Nutrition, Jones’ focus is on international nutrition, along with studies in epidemiology, immunology, and infectious disease.
As a member of the Saurabh Mehta research group, Nutritional Sciences, Jones says, “Our research group works at the intersection of nutrition, inflammation, and infectious disease as a way to approach preventive health.”
Mehta’s group studies infectious diseases, such as HIV, tuberculosis, dengue, Zika, and malaria, as well as point-of-care diagnostics and crop biofortification. The group’s graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows work in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in India.
Jones, based in a rural area in Andhra Pradesh, South India, works with the Multiple Biofortified Food Crops (MBFC) Project—a randomized controlled feeding trial that uses biofortified food crops to feed infants age six to 24 months and their mothers. The work aims to determine whether meals made from these foods improve nutritional status, immunity, and cognitive function.
Biofortified Foods for Improving Nutrition
Biofortified crops are developed to have improved nutritional quality through controlled agronomic practices—in this case through conventional crop breeding. The trial uses pearl millet, orange sweet potato, and wheat crops, conventionally bred to have higher concentrations of iron, zinc, and vitamin A. Jones explains that vitamin A is crucial in maintaining vision, promoting growth and development, and protecting epithelium and mucosal integrity in the body. This micronutrient is also important to the immune function and to keeping the intestines healthy by maintaining the intestinal mucosa.
Jones plans to study the relationship between immune competence and vitamin A status in infant intestinal health. In Andhra Pradesh, more than half of the children under age five have a low vitamin A status.
Mehta’s research group collaborates with a local hospital to conduct the MBFC Project, which launched in March 2019. Jones works with a team of local research assistants, health workers, study cooks, and coordinators to facilitate the trial’s recruitment, enrollment and baseline data collection.
“Mothers and children are receiving meals prepared here in our hospital kitchen. Those in the experimental group receive meals that are made with biofortified crops. Participants in the control group are given identical meals but prepared using non-biofortified crops,” Jones says. “Before, during, and after this feeding period, we assess markers of health status.” The trial continues through the summer of 2020.
From Pre-Med to Peace Corps to International Health
As an undergraduate, Jones studied biology, chemistry, and business administration at Howard University in Washington, DC. She shifted from her initial goal, which was to practice medicine. “I realized that rather than seeing one patient at a time, I was more interested in being able to serve many people at once. I began to look for opportunities to increase access to improved health outcomes across resource-limited settings,” Jones says. She then earned a master’s degree in public health from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and used the practicum experience as an opportunity to serve the United States Peace Corps in Botswana, where she worked for three years.
As a Masters International Peace Corps Volunteer, Jones worked in a small clinic, building capacity to provide care and treatment to people living with HIV. Her later volunteer work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) focused on pharmaceutical logistics in hospital settings. The work led to the development of a supply chain management program that strengthened the government’s system of providing HIV-related drugs and commodities to health facilities across the country.
“My heart is really in my work. Reaching goals in this context requires strong teamwork and communication, quick problem solving, and a strong desire to work with and for others.”
Through her experience in the Peace Corps, Jones gained unique knowledge in systems strengthening, project development and management, and public health programming, which she is able to apply in her current research. “I'm happy to see that my work in the Peace Corps has been so directly relevant to what I'm doing now,” says Jones.
Rigors and Gratification of International Fieldwork
Confessing love for her work, Jones says that she enjoys the challenges that come with field-based research. “My heart is really in my work. Reaching goals in this context requires strong teamwork and communication, quick problem solving, and a strong desire to work with and for others. Many of my interactions involve conveying information or understanding meaning, without being fluent in the local language. In order to implement effectively, I have to learn how to listen exceptionally well.”
Since communication is a crucial part of her job, Jones has realized that one-on-one interactions and conversations help overcome the language barrier. “I try to have small group conversations because I want to make sure that I correctly identify what the other person wants to convey,” she says. “I also want to know that we all understand the study protocols the same way. What I find really gratifying is the human connection required in every step along the way. I try to be as present as possible in the setting I’m in. I want be aware of everything that's going on around me—the social norms, cultural beliefs, human values—that inform our work and quality of life. India for me is a relatively new world, but the staff and participants I work with are young women, just like me. We’re brought together by an appreciation for child development and family health, and a universal understanding of the importance of food.”
At this stage in her life, Jones is happily balancing her role as a graduate student and researcher. “In the future, I would like to continue to work at the intersection of nutrition and disease. I plan to use the clinical study design, implementation, and analysis skills I gain in this doctoral program to work in spaces that inform large-scale programs on the most effective ways of enabling vulnerable populations in achieving a state of health.”