Political science’s Carmen Ho among Pacific Standard’s 30 under 30 social scientists
When the Pacific Standard published its list of the top 30 social scientists under the age of 30 this year, it was looking for “the world’s not-yet-known Milton Friedmans and Philip Zimbardos and Margaret Meads.”
The magazine’s search led to University of Toronto political science PhD candidate Carmen Ho, who received the accolade for her research on child under-nutrition.
Ho is affiliated with the Centre for Global Child Health at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, where she works with nutritional sciences and pediatrics professor Stanley Zlotkin, the developer of “Sprinkles,” sachets of powder containing enough micronutrients for one child for one day.
Before coming to U of T, Ho received a master’s degree in international public policy from University College London and then spent a year in the Philippines as an economic development officer, focusing on increasing sustainable rice production.
The Pacific Standard accolade is not Ho’s first. In 2012-13 she received a SSHRC doctoral fellowship and a Dr. David Chu Leadership Award from U of T’s Asian Institute, which recognizes undergraduate and graduate student leadership and academic achievement in pursuing and promoting extra-curricular research related to the Asia-Pacific region in the Faculty of Arts and Science.
Ho is currently in Thailand, where she is helping to prepare a regional food and nutrition security report. She took time out from her research to talk to U of T News writer Terry Lavender about her research into under-nutrition.
How did you feel about being named a “top thinker under 30?”
I feel it is reflective of the support I’ve received from my dissertation supervisor, Joseph Wong, and the wonderful research opportunities I’ve had at U of T. Professor Wong has provided valuable guidance on my work and acted as a sounding board for my research ideas. He has also connected me with relevant researchers and projects at the university. This has, on no uncertain terms, helped to improve my research and analysis.
How serious is under-nutrition?
Under-nutrition can stunt physical development, impair cognitive skills, increase susceptibility to disease, and result in early death, particularly when it occurs during the first 1,000 days of life (from conception to around two years of age). It remains one of the most persistent global development challenges and a staggering number of children in Southeast Asia’s low and middle income countries bear the effects of undernutrition. Stunting affects 44 per cent of children under the age of five in Laos, 40 per cent of children in Cambodia, 37 per cent of children in Indonesia, and 30 per cent of children in the Philippines.
At the same time, the economic costs of under-nutrition are substantial. It can result in productivity losses at the individual level and losses to national Gross Domestic Product. Despite the benefits of ensuring adequate maternal and child nutrition – and the obvious costs of failing to do so – country commitment varies. This is especially puzzling as a wide range of simple, cost-effective, evidence-based nutrition interventions exist to address under-nutrition.
There is a growing recognition that the politics of policymaking can help explain how maternal and child nutrition becomes prioritized on the national agenda. My research brings a political science perspective and looks at why the issue receives political commitment in some Southeast Asian countries but not in others.
Tell us more about your current activities in Thailand.
I am a visiting researcher with UNICEF’s East Asia Pacific Regional Office where I am supporting the preparation of a regional food and nutrition security report, in collaboration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, I am carrying out field research for my dissertation on the politics of policymaking in Southeast Asia and how international agreements influence the prioritization of maternal and child nutrition on national agendas.
Besides your research on under-nutrition, you’re also an advisor with the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Global Ideas Institute, which you managed from 2012 to 2014. How do you find the time and energy for all your activities?
It’s less about finding the time and energy and more about showing up in the political science department and spending time with colleagues whose work I deeply respect!
I have also met great people outside of my department. This will be the third year that Bev Bradley, who is doing her PhD in chemical engineering with the Centre for Global Engineering, Nandita Perumal, who is doing her PhD in epidemiology, and I co-chair the Interdisciplinary Society for International Development (ISID). We are interested in similar global challenges but approach these issues from different perspectives. Every year, ISID organizes a conference around a specific theme and we invite PhD students, PhD candidates, and post-doctoral fellows from different disciplines to present research findings.
It has therefore been easy to get involved with a lot of different activities at U of T because I have met so many interesting people to work with.