Researcher Awarded $2 Million Grant from Gates Foundation

Anthropologist Robin Bernstein will study growth patterns in rural African children.

December 05, 2012

George Washington University researcher Robin Bernstein, an assistant professor of anthropology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, has received a grant of $2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant, which is part of the Achieving Healthy Growth program within the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, will fund research on growth disparities among rural African children under 2 years of age.

At age 2, children in low-income countries are about two standard deviations below the healthy growth norm, Dr. Bernstein explained. Because healthy growth is regulated by a small number of interacting hormonal pathways in the body that are sensitive to nutrition and infection, understanding specifically how these interactions work may help understand why these children’s growth is below average.

“We believe that our detailed investigation of how healthy growth proceeds, and how challenges to healthy growth occur, will provide a comprehensive foundation for targeted prevention and intervention strategies,” she said. 

The study will track 200 newborn babies whose growth has been monitored since the 13th week of gestation. Dr. Bernstein intends for the study to be among the most detailed of its type ever conducted, with biological data collected on the children’s growth patterns, health and physiology.

“To this point, such efforts have been affected by an incomplete understanding of how, at a mechanistic level, nutritional and environmental influences on key hormone pathways regulate healthy and compromised growth,” she said.

The goals of the Achieving Healthy Growth program are to discover the causes of faltering growth during the first 1,000 days—roughly the first 2.75 years—of a child’s life and to identify effective and affordable interventions to promote healthy growth. Chris Wilson, director of discovery and translational sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Dr. Bernstein’s grant is one of seven awarded this week to study growth in children.

“Safeguarding the health of young children is one of the world’s most urgent priorities and a core focus of our work,” he said. “We hope the suite of grants announced today will give us a deeper understanding of the reasons underlying stunted growth in children in the developing world, and how this can be predicted to guide new approaches to improve the health and development of these children.”

Dr. Bernstein’s research will be carried out in the Gambia, located in West Africa. The study is a collaboration between GW, the MRC International Nutrition Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Cambridge University and the MRC Keneba, a rural field station in the Kiang West region of the Gambia.

“A project of this scope would not be possible without strong collaborative relationships, and I am privileged to be working with some of the very best researchers out there,” Dr. Bernstein said.