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Blugold earns prestigious Fulbright research grant

| Scott Procter

When Anna Waller was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she never even dreamed of traveling to another country to conduct research that could improve the quality of life for a generation of newborn babies, but that is exactly what the Blugold alumna will be doing in 2019.

Waller, of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2015 and is currently enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is studying food science and human nutrition. Waller recently was awarded a prestigious Fulbright research grant to conduct her Ph.D. research in Mexico. Thanks to her broad educational background at UW-Eau Claire, Waller plans to use the framework from her studies as a Blugold to make an impact in Mexico starting in January 2019.

The Fulbright Scholarship Program sponsors U.S. and foreign students for exchanges in different areas of study to increase mutual understanding between people of the U.S. and those of other countries. Waller says this opportunity will not only help her academically, it will allow her the chance to see the big picture and make an impact.

“In the current political climate, I think it’s important now more than ever to continue establishing positive collaborative relationships with other countries,” Waller said. “The Fulbright allows me the opportunity to be an ambassador for the United States, both in terms of culture and research scholarship.”

While Waller’s Ph.D. field of study is food science and human nutrition, her unique combination of interests at UW-Eau Claire set the stage for her upcoming six-month mission. A triple major in chemistry, Spanish and Latin American studies at UW-Eau Claire helped prepare Waller for her upcoming research trip to Mexico.

Breastfeeding rates in Mexico are among the lowest in Latin America. In fact, only 14 percent of women breastfeed their children exclusively in the first six months, according to a recent National Public Radio story. Waller’s goal is to develop and validate a portable vitamin A sensor to test the nutritional value of breast milk.

Poverty and poor nutrition are among the main reasons why women aren’t breastfeeding in Mexico. Waller knows that being able to create an inexpensive way to analyze breast milk to help more mothers feed their infants naturally could have an astounding impact on millions of newborn babies.

“The development of technologies that are simple, inexpensive and require little-to-no personnel to operate are practical for many settings, but particularly resource-limited settings,” Waller said. “We are trying to address both of these points for the context of Mexico, and hope that it can be applied to other foods as well as implemented in other parts of the world.”

After Mexico banned the giveaway of free infant formula in 2015 in an effort to increase the number of mothers breastfeeding, Waller’s work to develop technologies that address nutritional gaps for infants and mothers is not only relevant but critical to future generations.

Waller says her experiences while at UW-Eau Claire and the support of research with faculty mentor Dr. Jim Phillips, professor of chemistry, helped shape her future.

“She is compassionate, genuinely cares about people, and has traveled the world in the pursuit and interest of other people and their cultures,” Phillips said. “This helped her find her niche in food science, and her undergraduate degree plan uniquely prepared her for her Ph.D. project.”

In terms of advice for current and future Blugolds, Waller said students should get involved with as many opportunities outside their comfort zones as possible. Working side-by-side with talented professors and mentors, some of whom have become lifelong friends, helped Waller accomplish goals she never dreamed possible.

“I can honestly say I had no idea about graduate school,” Waller said. “I had no idea I was interested in the Latin American context, but opportunities and mentors helped me find myself and my purpose.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire alumna Anna Waller has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright research grant to help develop technologies that address nutritional gaps in infants and mothers in Mexico.