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Arnold School of Public Health

Leila Larson brings global health background, child nutrition/development expertise to HPEB department

September 8, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Leila Larson’s career may have shifted from engineering to public health, but she has always applied a global lens to her work. The daughter of global health practitioners, the Montreal native spent her childhood in Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

“Even at an early age, I was aware of the inequalities that exist across countries and communities,” Larson says. “This stuck with me as I pursued my higher education, first as an engineer and then as a public health researcher.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in geological/environmental engineering from the University of British Columbia, Larson spent a year as a mine water specialist before returning to graduate school. At Columbia University, she built on her previous training with a Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences – bridging her past and future and making her first official shift into public health.  Larson’s internship with Nutrition International in Ethiopia confirmed she was now in the right field.

“I observed the tremendous burden of malnutrition, diarrhea, and stunting and the long-term consequences that these preventable conditions can have on an individual’s life,” she says. “Yet, simple and low-cost nutritional solutions existed to help alleviate this burden. I wanted to be part of the solution.”

After completing her master’s degree, Larson earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition and Health Sciences from Emory University. She gained additional experience as a consultant to improve nutrition in India and then as a research fellow with the International and Immigrant Health Group at the University of Melbourne.

“Since that internship in Ethiopia, I have devoted my research to finding effective, sustainable, low-cost, and integrated solutions to improve the health and development of children from underserved communities,” Larson says. “This type of research is interesting and exciting to me precisely because it has the potential to inform global and national policies and ultimately improve the lives of millions of people.”

While Larson’s global perspective has remained constant throughout her life and career, her specific interests have evolved to incorporate the influence of her parents’ work as a pediatrician/epidemiologist and child development psychologist and her own engineering background. The latter has proved useful at unexpected yet welcome moments.

Larson’s environmental engineering training has helped her understand the causes of anemia in South Asia. In certain areas of Bangladesh, for example, iron deficiency, which is usually the most prevalent cause of anemia, is not a major risk factor because iron can be found in the groundwater and thus communities’ drinking water. Larson’s research has examined how, in certain contexts, other more complex and less common risk factors of anemia are important, including other nutritional deficiencies, thalassemia, infection, and sanitation/hygiene. This has informed her design of interventions, which are aimed at improving maternal and child health where mental and motor development are particularly concerned.

Larson is looking forward to continuing this type of work as an assistant professor in the Arnold School’s Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB). She is using her expertise in child development and malnutrition in studies in Malawi and Bangladesh to examine the effects of nutritional supplementation in early life on cognitive functioning and health of children and their mothers. She plans to develop new research to identify important risk factors for poor development and evaluate integrated interventions to improve the health and wellbeing of women and children in resource-limited settings.

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Larson joining HPEB and the Arnold School,” says HPEB chair Daniela Friedman. “Dr. Larson’s research has already contributed to the literature and will continue to have significant impact on our understanding of nutritional status and outcomes through innovative intervention methodologies.”

“I was initially struck by the large size of the HPEB department, and I believe this is such an asset, with enormous potential for collaboration and interdisciplinary work within the department but also with faculty from other departments and schools at UofSC,” Larson says. “I’m also looking forward to working with students, both in teaching global health courses and mentoring. I’ve already had the opportunity to start many interesting discussions with faculty and students, and I am eager to carry on those conversations.”

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