Beyond Backyards

By Debby Denehy

Nutrition professor, Dr. Neeta Singh, arriving in Bukoba, Tanzania, in 2006.

Nutrition professor, Dr. Neeta Singh, arriving in Bukoba, Tanzania, in 2006.

Teaching beyond classroom walls is what UIW associate professor of nutrition Dr. Neeta Singh is all about. Her philosophy is to not only bring the world to the classroom, but to bring the classroom to the world.

Her work in Tanzania is just one example. On a visit to the Bukoba region in rural East Africa last year, Singh was intrigued by Tanzania's first published nutrition survey about the food intake of area residents. The survey uncovered vast protein deficiencies in their diets.

Singh advised local women that soybeans are rich in protein and easy to grow. She suggested they could grow them and then add them into their diets to reduce their protein deficiency. Soybeans were already being grown and distributed in other regions of Africa. But with little knowledge about nutrition and few resources, Bukoba residents needed convincing to invest in cultivating their own crops.

Singh was persuasive and gained the support of the Bukoba Women's Empowerment Association. The organization had 50 acres of fertile land by Lake Victoria. With funds provided by the Women's Global Connection, coordinated by Dr. Dorothy “Dot” Ettling, a UIW professor and Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the group rented a tractor to prepare an initial ten acres of the land and purchased soybean seeds. As expected, the soybeans grew quickly, and the first crop was harvested in April.

Singh is inspired by the Tanzanians' participation in the effort, and says, “This is not our project, but theirs, and they are excited about being able to do this. It's something they want. We're just providing some tools to help make it happen.”

This summer, graduate student Laura Provenzano joins Singh on a return trip to Tanzania. Travel funds for Provenzano were initiated by Dr. Glenn James, dean of the School of Mathematics, Science, and Engineering, and furnished by Provost, Dr. Terry Dicianna. The team plans to implement a pilot teaching project to educate families on using the soybeans. Provenzano is assisting Singh in conducting workshops on how the body processes and benefits from the protein. Their goal is to reach families in Bukoba and outlying areas and, eventually, teach residents how to expand the crops and package and sell the commodity. Future sales of the product could help boost the local economy.

Women attending a nutrition workshop in Bukoba.

Women attending a nutrition workshop in Bukoba.

This type of student involvement is a testament to Singh's classroom-without-walls approach. She feels passionately about teachers being a strong motivational force, and adds that “teaching doesn't end at the end of class; rather, it starts.”

Since 2001, Singh has been on the faculty of UIW, influencing students, colleagues, and populations abroad. She sets the bar high, reaching for ways to motivate students and initiate change in campus classrooms and across the globe.

Her teaching approach centers on developing students' own style of leadership based on their strengths. She wants her students to think critically and apply their knowledge of nutrition beyond their own backyards. “I like to encourage students to consider their field personally and globally; after all, we truly live in a borderless world,” Singh says. With a subject as complex as food that encompasses science, human rights, management, health, social psychology and much more, Singh wants her students to use a multidimensional approach in dealing with issues.

She inspires students to achieve by showing she cares. “I believe in taking the extra step to personally connect with students to make them feel their success is my business,” she says. It's that extra step that Singh feels inspires them to put efforts into learning and intensifies their desire to excel.

Her extra efforts have inspired the UIW community, too. They selected her to receive the prestigious Presidential Teaching Award that Dr. Louis J. Agnese, Jr., created to honor an outstanding UIW educator. In April, faculty members representing a cross-section of disciplines, years of service, ranks and talents were nominated, and Singh was a natural for the award.

Singh expressed amazement and gratitude as she accepted the President’s highest teaching honor.

Singh expressed amazement and gratitude as she accepted the President’s highest teaching honor.

Born in India, Singh grew up as the daughter of a foreign diplomat in the former Soviet Union where training in English wasn't up to her parents' standards. Her mother, a professor of English, insisted her three daughters have a quality education, so she brought them to England every summer to augment their studies. Over the years, Singh's eyes were opened to the health sciences and ignited a desire to study global food issues.

Hungry for knowledge, she ventured to the U.S. to attend Oregon State University and received her doctorate in nutrition. Her doctoral research included modeling an artificial intelligence system for food aid distribution. Singh's work centered on developing ways to integrate technology to advance the field of nutrition. To expand her world focus, she recently completed her MBA at UIW with an international concentration.

But it was her earlier dissertation work with a San Antonio professor working with NASA software that dramatically changed her life. Singh ended up visiting UIW, and was so impressed with the beautiful campus and its culture of social justice that she wanted to stay -- permanently.

After a stint as an adjunct nutrition instructor, Singh landed a full-time faculty position and hasn't looked back. “I am where I'm supposed to be,” she says.

Singh savors life's daily pleasures -- everyday conversations and small achievements -- and looks forward to every teaching day, saying, “There are no equations or algorithms to explain my philosophy of teaching. To me, it's a constant adventure with never a dull moment. It is like a spontaneous drive in the middle of the night: you may enjoy the beauty of the drive or you may end up getting a traffic ticket -- either way, it's an adventure.”