Susan Walker gives food for thought
Dr Susan Walker has always felt it her mission to pursue a career which would make a difference in people’s lives. What she did not know was that her chosen career would take her from the International School in Geneva, through the hallowed halls of Bristol University, to under-privileged communities in Jamaica where her work in child nutrition and development has made an impact.
A professor of nutrition and child development, Dr Walker delivers her inaugural lecture on Thursday at 5:00 pm in the Main Medical Lecture Theatre, University Hospital of the West Indies. The lecture is entitled “Food for Thought: Nutrition and Child Development”.
She currently heads a research team at the UWI, studying the effects of low birth weight on children’s growth, development and morbidity.
“Our work is centred around malnourished children, and the effects this has on their development and ability to learn,” Walker told All Woman. “Naturally, this takes us into the poor neighbourhoods in Kingston where the impact is greatest.
“We have found that undernourished children from age one upwards are more likely to have conduct disorders, less likely to be pro-social, and do not exhibit positive behaviour,” she diagnosed.
Her research is aimed at assessing the benefits of providing psychosocial stimulation to these children and has contributed to her being recognised for her work in the field of nutrition.
Walker is published widely in periodicals such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Journal of Nutrition, Lancet, American Journal of Epidemiology and the American Journal of Public Health; is the author of 11 invited articles and chapters; and has edited and reviewed manuscripts for several international journals.
In 1996, Walker was a consultant to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Government of Zimbabwe and led the evaluation of their child supplementary feeding programme, in addition to working as a consultant to the World Health Organisation. She is also a member of the Nutrition Society (UK), the American Society for Nutritional Sciences and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition.
A Kingstonian, Walker attended St Andrew High School for two years then left Jamaica at age 13 with her parents, Herbert and Eva Walker.
The family migrated when her father was appointed Jamaica’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
“It was a big transition for us moving into a more ordered society where everybody obeyed all the rules. I particularly missed the exuberance and joyfulness of my friends at home,” Walker shared.
This transition did not impact negatively on her studies as she successfully completed secondary education in Geneva before moving to England where she did a BSc in Biochemistry.
Having made the decision to move into the field of nutrition, she completed post-graduate and doctoral studies at Queen Elizabeth College (now part of King’s College), University of London, and a PhD, through a scholarship from the European Union.
In 1985, Walker returned to Jamaica without much prompting. At that time her father was Jamaica’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom.
“I was away for so long, I wanted to see what it was like living in Jamaica. In a sense, my father’s devotion and commitment to Jamaica also influenced my decision,” she said.
Walker joined the University of the West Indies staff as lecturer at the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU), and in 1994, she was awarded a one-year fellowship from the Pan American Health Organisation to further her training in epidemiology and biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health. She was a visiting fellow in the Department of Nutrition there, and conducted research with professor Walter Willett, a respected nutritional epidemiologist. Later, she was appointed senior lecturer at the TMRU and professor of nutrition in 1999.
At the pinnacle of her career, Walker is bent on developing innovative approaches to bridge the gaps between poor nutrition, child development and scholastic achievement. So far, she has made some breakthroughs.
“One success strategy is to teach mothers to play with children as part of their development. We conducted a study with children two to three years old, employing this method, and after tracking their development, we found that at age 11, they were still benefiting from this kind of stimulation. This is a remarkable achievement,” Walker revealed.
“We are also looking at a group of low birth weight children to assess the effects of pregnancy on their development,” she said.
A founding member of the Malnourished Children’s Foundation, she wholeheartedly supports a mobile toy library which provides outreach to malnourished children and their families through play therapy, parent education and skills training.
A demanding person on the job, Walker aspires to be a role model; she states that one of her major challenges is to give leadership tips to young women scientists.
“I’d like to help them move upwards. There are so many bright young women within the university who sit and relax in one position.
They ought to take a more pro-active approach towards upward mobility, the men do it, so why can’t we,-” she asked.
“In today’s world women are less likely to be recognised for a job well done, and to be promoted perhaps because we are thought to have too many social responsibilities, so we have to be more assertive,” she emphasised.
It’s not all work for the easy-going Walker, who enjoys swimming, playing tennis and spending time with her two-year-old daughter, Emma.