Paying it forward is something that many people aspire to every day. Faculty member and alumna, Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, LD, along with her husband, Vibhu Sharma, committed $100,000 in 2016 to establish the Shreela and Vibhu Sharma Endowed Fund for Excellence in Community Nutrition, Health & Wellness at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health.
“I went to UTHealth and I had some fantastic experiences and mentors who really made public health important and relevant for me – the whole experience,” says Shreela Sharma about her time as a student at UTHealth School of Public Health, where she earned a PhD in 2005. “We always knew that we wanted to give back in any small way possible.”
The endowment funds several competitive doctoral-level fellowships every year and requires a research commitment of at least two semesters (200 hours per semester) for students to be selected as “Sharma Fellows.”
Shreela Sharma is a professor in the UTHealth School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences and works with the school’s Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.
“We are grateful to have the support of the Sharmas through this new fellowship,” says Eric Boerwinkle, PhD, dean of the School of Public Health. “This support of student academics and research demonstrates the outstanding dedication our faculty members have to the school. Dr. Sharma is already a super star on our faculty, and I look forward to great things from her in the future. Shreela and Vibhu’s gift is a testament to the generosity of the people of Houston to UTHealth and the School of Public Health, in particular.”
Sharma, who is known for her work in community nutrition and childhood obesity prevention, says she hopes the fellowship will help the school continue to attract talent at a high level. “We have some fantastic work and research that we’re doing through Brighter Bites, for example. These opportunities would really help students get that ‘public-health-in-action’ experience.”
Shreela Sharma is co-founder of Brighter Bites, alongside Lisa Helfman. This non-profit organization aims to improve eating behavior among predominantly low-income families by introducing them to a routine distribution of fresh produce, along with corresponding education in school and at home, ultimately helping to curb the childhood obesity epidemic in Houston. “Sharma Fellows will be a tremendous asset to the research questions that Brighter Bites is interested in answering” says Lisa Helfman. Sharma’s work at the School of Public Health focuses on Brighter Bites and other community-based nutrition research.
Vibhu Sharma emphasized the economic value that the endowment offers fellows in addition to the experience. Sharma Fellows not only get compensation for being selected as a fellow, but also get access to in-state tuition rates. He said he is also interested in the legacy it will leave for his own family. “This would be something in perpetuity, so it would allow us to have a legacy for the Sharma name,” he says.
He is also excited about continuing to raise awareness in nutrition and public health through this endowment. “The idea is to highlight what the endowment supports, which is research in nutrition and health through programs like Brighter Bites. The outreach and awareness that we will generate from this will hopefully gets more people on the healthy bandwagon.” He adds in with a bit of humor, “For people like me, for whom it is easy to jump into a box of Cheetos.”
The endowed fund’s manager is Deanna Hoelscher, PhD, RD, director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the School of Public Health’s campus in Austin (one of six campuses across the State of Texas). Hoelscher is charged with making sure funds are dispersed as soon as they are ready; seeing that student work is supervised by a faculty member; and promoting the fellowship whenever possible.
Hoelscher echoes the Sharmas’ sentiments for attracting top students to the School of Public Health. “Whenever you get funding like this – especially when it’s for a student who is out of state or out of country – that in-state tuition really amplifies the amount of money you get through the fellowship itself.”
This endowment strengthens the relationship between academia and the non-profit sector. The goal is to improve the nutrition status and health of parents, children and the greater community.