What we have here is a champion.

by Sarah Luna

Last week, a professor whom I esteem highly gave a seminar on implementation science–the science of getting things done. The body of scientific literature on various and important nutrition topics, though not perfect, is impressive.  We don’t know everything, but we know enough to make a difference. The problem is, we don’t know how to implement (hence implementation science) what we know in the “real world”.

In order to illustrate his point, he listed the following scenario: How would you implement a healthy school lunch program? The audience gave a collective groan at this. We started listing off how we would need administrative support, a supply of healthy food, a way to deliver healthy food, funding, education for cafeteria workers, elimination of vending machines and other sources of calorie-dense/nutrient-poor foods, and encouragement for the children to eat what was provided…among many other things.

Then one undergraduate girl piped up with something to the effect: “I saw this documentary once about a principal who used part of his own salary to revamp the cafeteria to only provide healthy food.”  I caught my breath as she said this; it sounded so incredibly naive.

The professor smiled and said, “What we have here is the case of a champion taking on the problem. Is that a scalable way to address this?” The adults in the room chuckled knowingly. “No.” My cheeks burned.

The word champion has stuck with me for days. Why won’t that work? Why can’t we depend on each other to do incredible things with passion and excellence and fervor?

I start with myself when attempting to answer these sorts of questions. Why doesn’t that work for me? Why can’t others depend on me to do incredible things?  And I realize that I haven’t been acting like a champion with a cause. I’ve been acting like tired, disgruntled, stressed, ungrateful graduate student. Yes, I’m hoping to accomplish great things in my career. Yes, there is a lot of hard, under-appreciated work that goes into that. But what am I doing right now to be a champion for someone else?

That question has been percolating in the back of my head for about a week now, and unfortunately I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer.

Excellence used to be enough for me. I could look at myself and see the fruit of my efforts. I could help other people and see how simply striving for excellence inspired excellence in those around me.

When I was little, I enjoyed reading a series titled Heroes of the Faith which chronicled the lives of amazing men and women. I remember reading about Florence Nightingale and being depressed because she couldn’t start her calling until she was nearly thirty (I was maybe 12 when I first read this). I felt like she was just treading water with a “normal life” waiting for the chance to be extraordinary.

If I am to be a champion at all, it will be a very different sort. I look at the brilliant women around me. Most of the world doesn’t even know who they are, yet they collect and analyze and interpret the evidence that informs international policy.

What we have here are champions, and I should be nothing less.