So it turns out we’ve got some pretty bright minds writing for us here at Smile Politely, and one of those just happens to be culture writer Anna Waller. Ms. Waller is a second year Ph.D student in Juan Andrade's Global Nutrition Lab at the University of Illinois. The lab is working to develop sustainable solutions to malnutrition in developing countries. Specifically, she is researching “simple to use biosensors to detect micro-nutrients in foods for quality control in developing countries.” This summer, Ms. Waller was selected, along with 40 other grad students across the country, to attend a food security conference at Purdue University. A team project from that conference has now led her to be a finalist in the National Geographic contest  "Chasing Genius" with a $25,000 prize on the line. The focus of her team’s project is creating a more nutritionally fortified infant formula for babies in Liberia using locally sourced plants. I chatted with her this week about the specifics of the project.

Smile Politely: Tell me how this project came about.

Anna Waller: As part of the two week long conference, we got split up into teams and assigned a country. Together as a team we were to develop a solution to a specific problem in the region. We were assigned Liberia, and between the six of us we all did research in our different areas. I was the nutrition expert. We also had a soil scientist, a plant biologist, a gender and agriculture specialist, an agricultural engineer, and an economist. One of our teammates is from Liberia, so she had an incredible insight into the issues that are happening on the ground. Her suggestion was that the biggest problem is “child stunting”, where without adequate nutrition children are stunted for the rest of their lives. She recommend we focus on infant nutrition. Our plant biologist researches African vegetables and she pointed out crops that are underutilized in Africa that we could incorporate into some sort of infant product. In my research we fortify food for low resources settings so because of my background we went the infant formula route. So we kind of combined all of our interests and specialties. 

SP: So what is your actual proposal? What are you advocating for?

Waller: Currently mothers (in Liberia) will make infant formula out of cassava, which is kind of starchy like a potato. It has the calories that a baby may need but not the micro-nutrients. The idea is to educate farmers on better growing practices for underutilized crops: amaranth, moringa, and banana, and also educating food processors on how to dry these ingredients to be made into a powder. I developed a formula to balance out the nutrients a baby needs between six and twelve months of age. Then the community education part would involve educating mothers and families on how to make the formula and how to use it. So it’s combining better farming practices with education.

SP: What is the National Geographic competition all about, and what led your team to enter the project?

Waller: At the conference we were told that a previous group had submitted an idea to an outside competition and won. We think our idea is good, and we heard about the National Geographic competition and decided to take a leap of faith and enter. The competition asks for ideas in one of three categories: sustainable planet, global health care, and feeding 9 billion. We submitted ours to the feeding 9 billion. It focuses on the fact that our population is constantly increasing yet we still have so much malnutrition.

SP: And now your project has been selected as a finalist, right? Out of over 3000 entries?

Waller: We are 1 of 15 finalists in our category. There are two ways we can win. We can be selected by a panel of judges, or we can win by having the most votes. We’re trying to get family, friends, and colleagues to vote. In either case, the prize is $25,000 to ideally go towards the project.

The team submitted a video to National Geographic Chasing Genius competition. Check it out to learn more specifics about the project, and if you feel so inclined, you can vote for the project before September 15th.