What it means to be a PhD student

by Sarah Luna

Iron deficiency is the most common known form of nutritional deficiency. Its prevalence is highest among young children and women of childbearing age (particularly pregnant women). In children, iron deficiency causes developmental delays and behavioral disturbances, and in pregnant women, it increases the risk for a preterm delivery and delivering a low-birthweight baby.

CDC 1998

In total, 0.8 million (1.5%) of deaths worldwide are attributable to iron deficiency, 1.3% of all male deaths and 1.8% of all female deaths. Attributable DALYs [disability adjusted life years] are even greater, amounting to the loss of about 35 million healthy life years (2.4% of global DALYs). Of these DALYs, 12.5 million (36%) occurred in SEAR-D, 4.3 million (12.4%) in WPR-B, and 10.1 million (29%) in Africa.


I came to Cornell to study iron deficiency (ID). Specifically, I am interested in the physical differences that result from ID that affect the lives of working women and children. Though ID is common throughout the world, there are certain countries that are more severely crippled by malnutrition. Iron deficiency anemia results when iron loss is so severe that hemoglobin (which carries oxygen in the blood) cannot be formed.

Prevalence of anemia in pregnant women

As you can see, India and Africa both have a prevalence greater than 40%. From my other readings, it can be as high as 70% in children. These are where interventions are most needed.

I had planned on going to India this summer to begin a project there with my advisor and lab group which unfortunately was delayed. My lab group left today for Mumbai, and I remained here in Ithaca to take my courses and TA. I will hopefully return with my lab group in the spring for the endline data collection.

Until then, I need to focus on other projects. India is on the backburner, so that naturally leaves Africa. My group has been planning a second project (nearly identical to the India one), and I will be going to Rwanda at the beginning of 2012.

I am not scared. Yes, I do know what happened there fifteen years ago. Yes, I have the same health issues to be concerned about. Yes, I understand there are reasons to be cautious. But look at the map…that’s where I can help.

I had hoped to share this news after I had come home safely from India–just so that I’d have something BIG to prove that I could handle myself. Obviously, that didn’t work out.

I have lived on my own for the past five years relying on my own judgment to keep me out of trouble; that will have to be enough.

Why I’m not scared (in bullet form)

  • I will be travelling with a 6’4″ male researcher and my advisor.
  • We have colleagues and contacts in Rwanda because this is a collaborative effort.
  • My roommate just got back from two months (mostly alone) in Tanzania (it borders Rwanda and sheltered Rwandan refugees during the genocide) and is just fine.
  • One of my nutrition colleagues (blue eyes, blonde hair, female) lived for a year in Rwanda and loved it so much that she is going back.
  • My advisor is making a preliminary trip in November. If he thinks it is unsafe, he will pull me from the project. (This also shows that he will not send me anywhere that he is not willing to go himself.)
  • Bad things happen everywhere (even London, even here). They could happen to me at any place at any time.
  • Even though I’m not scared, I’m not stupid either (nor will I bungee jump off Victoria Falls).


This is the exciting part.

  • Now-December 16th – Ithaca
  • December 16th – December 30th – home
  • New York City (NYC on New Year’s Eve???)
  • January 1st, 2012 – NYC to Rwanda
  • February – return to Ithaca
  • May-June- India (with Allyson’s wedding in there too!)
  • July-September – Ithaca (with a CA trip in there somewhere!)
  • October- November – Rwanda

There are some big decisions coming up. How can I springboard from my projects in India and Rwanda to my own research? I’ll have enough experience by then to determine whether I want an international or a domestic project. Will I be ready for my A exam next summer? What then?

Please don’t be worried about me. This is why I came to Cornell. I wrote this post to give consistent information to everyone at the same time. If you have questions about any of it, call me.