Leetsdale native studies obstacles to breastfeeding in India

September 19, 2018
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Natalie Napolitano speaks with a family in Tamil Nadu, India, where she participated in the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, studying the obstacles to breastfeeding there.

A Leetsdale native was one of 24 students across the country who completed a summer internship researching the obstacles to breastfeeding in India.

Natalie Napolitano, a 2018 graduate of Quaker Valley High School, spent part of her summer in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, where she participated in the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, made possible by a grant from the World Food Prize.

Students who attend the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, can apply for the internship. They do so by writing a paper on how they would solve a hunger issue in a certain country, according to Crystal Harris, who coordinates the internship program, which started in 1998 and places students in various countries, including Kenya, Malaysia, China and others, including India.

“What the students do when they are selected is they go on eight-week immersions within these countries and basically work alongside researchers that are doing experiments,” Harris said.

Her summer abroad will enrich Napolitano’s experience at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a dual degree program between the Wharton business school and the school of nursing, she said.

“It really gives me a whole new direction in which I want to pursue my future research interests, in terms of maternal health,” Napolitano said. “As I do eventually want to work in nonprofit, getting this experience is really useful.”

In India, Napolitano said she studied with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and conducted 42 interviews with mothers. She also held five different focus group discussions. The passion in her voice was unmistakable as she went through some of her research findings.

A lot of women in rural India have treatable conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, that make breastfeeding painful, Napolitano said.

The local health system does not adequately address these issues, she said.

“When you look at the population, the proportion of the women who had health issues were the most disadvantaged group,” Napolitano said.

She also noticed a disconnect between older and younger generations of women, particularly in regard to the supplemental forms of nourishment mothers use. For instance, despite the fact that breast milk has a high water content, younger mothers tend to give their babies more water than their older counterparts did.

The majority of younger mothers also introduce cow’s milk before breastfeeding is complete, Napolitano said.

She described one of her hypotheses: “Obviously, there’s something going on with the communication. There may be a cultural disconnect there too on how health advice is valued and what advice is valued.”

On Oct. 19, Napolitano will explain her research findings when she presents her report to the next group of high school students at the Global Youth Institute. Soon after she presents, her report will be available on the World Food Prize website, Harris said.

Napolitano’s work this past summer underscores her longstanding interest in nutrition. As a high school student, she found several different grants and incentives that Ambridge qualifies for, as a USDA-designated food desert.

“She collated the information, wrote up a proposal with the list of resources and presented it to the town council,” Natalie’s mother, Maria Napolitano, recalled.

Harris had nothing but positive things to say about Natalie and the research she completed this past summer.

“Natalie left such an incredibly strong impression on the staff at the Swaminathan Foundation,” Harris said. “Not only is she interested in a subject, but she also cares a lot about people.”

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