As part of our series exploring the edges of scientific research, we caught up with Lamis Jomaa, a World Economic Forum Young Scientist who is Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut. Lamis is examining the linkages between food insecurity, migration and human health outcomes to influence community-based nutrition interventions.
What is the big problem you're trying to solve?
I am trying to explore the main causes and consequences of food insecurity on the nutritional status and overall health and well-being of vulnerable groups, including children, women and refugees. I am particularly interested in advancing the dialogue on food insecurity within conflict-affected settings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
What is the big idea you're trying to use to solve it?
Food insecurity can only be addressed through a multi-disciplinary and a multisectoral approach. I am currently working with a multidisciplinary team of researchers and humanitarian practitioners to conduct translational science that goes beyond assessing the prevalence, determinants and consequences of food insecurity among vulnerable groups, to designing, implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of existing and novel community-based interventions to improve nutritional security.
How would you explain that to a 5-year-old?
I can see and sense the anxiety and fear that many people feel when they are unable to get food for their families and when they go to bed hungry, so I try to learn more what causes this and what can we do about it. I like to use numbers to tell the story of people who are left unheard, and I strive to help reduce their pain.
What has been the most difficult/challenging part of the journey?
The difficulty of my line of work lies in the complex interplay between the different macro- and micro-level factors that lead to poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition among the most impoverished and vulnerable population groups. This is particularly challenging in a conflict-prone region such as the MENA, where I work and live. In fact, the political instability of the region, taken together with ongoing wars, protracted refugee crises, and looming environmental and economic constraints will continue to be the biggest challenges to our work.
What is the most shocking fact that people are unaware of?
Although food insecurity is known to be a global threat that affects millions of individuals worldwide annually, I think the fact that shocks people the most is the extent to which food insecurity is likely to continue to grow as a serious and imminent threat for our future and that of our children. Climate change and severe environmental conditions are projected to cause more severe droughts, natural disasters and other emergencies, increasing the risks of conflicts and food insecurity.
Is there an interesting backstory to your work?
During my childhood and a good part of my adulthood, I witnessed first-hand what wars and conflicts can cause in terms of mass destruction, loss of life and food insecurity. In fact, I had to leave my native Lebanon and seek refuge in other neighbouring countries when my homeland was plagued by war. During my university years, I felt the urge to volunteer and conduct humanitarian work. It was my way to reconnect with my country. Little did I know that the first summer project that I got involved with during my senior year, working with Palestinian refugee children living in very poor neighbourhoods and communities in Beirut and northern Lebanon, was going to have such an impact on my life - and later my career.
The experience allowed me to learn first-hand the hardships of marginalized communities, who may live only one or two neighbourhoods away from mine. I also witnessed how small-scale projects can have such a positive impact on the lives of children and their families. I fell in love with community work after that experience and decided to pursue a more community-based field of work.