An appetite for service

Calling Alia Dharamsi a ‘foodie’ would be a bit of an understatement.
Dharamsi, a fourth-year Integrated Sciences Program (ISP) student, has turned her passion for all things nutrition-related—the, social, cultural, physiological and developmental impact of food—into a guiding principle.

“We can’t have civil society, we can’t have children learning well in school, we can’t have families functioning together, if people don’t have food,” says Dharamsi, who graduates this month. “Food is the basis of our society—we gather together to share meals, to learn about each other. And it’s at that basic level that I want to have an impact.”

That passion has guided the Wesbrook and Premier Undergraduate Scholar throughout her studies, community service and travels. In 2007 she took on the presidency of the UBC Meal Exchange Chapter, leading the student-driven chapter of the national non-profit to raise more than $54,000 worth of food for local families—placing the UBC Chapter amongst the most successful in Meal Exchange history. The experience—along with volunteering with the Alma Mater Society Food Bank—connected her studies in nutrition and physiology to the day-to-day impact that food security and hunger has on individuals and families.

“I got involved in ISP shortly after joining Meal Exchange. I’m fascinated by the impact that food and nutrition have—not only on society—but on our ability to fight disease, to learn, and to function as living, breathing units. And the great thing about the ISP is that you build your own program, and then rationalize why.”

Dharamsi has also made food a key ingredient in her work as a mentor and tutor in Vancouver’s inner city schools. Through the UBC Learning Exchange’s Trek Program and the Let’s Talk Science program, she not only shares her expertise in science and math with high-school and junior high school students, but also makes sure she conveys the importance that nutrition plays in learning.

“Children need food and proper nutrition to think, and they need to know the importance of this directly. You can’t learn if you’re hungry and can’t be expected to participate in class if your stomach is empty.”

Most of the students Dharamsi mentors are girls, many of whom have all too common mental blocks associated with math. “It’s one of those things that I struggled with immensely early on and had to conquer. And what frustrated me was hearing girls say: ‘Oh girls aren’t supposed to be good at math.’ Math can open so many doors, though young students might not see that immediately. It’s vital to let them know, and see, that university is cool, being smart is cool, and that post-secondary education in science is entirely within their grasp.”

Dharamsi capped off her four years as a UBC undergrad with a service trip to a small village just outside La Antigua, Guatemala—an experience that tied together her passion for helping people acquire the food, water and shelter they need, along with building knowledge and capabilities. Mornings were spent painting the learning centre, updating school electrical systems, and completing cement work at local schools. Afternoons were spent teaching literacy to local students.

To someone already well versed in the impact that food scarcity and poverty have on Vancouver communities, the trip was an uneasy analog. “The parallels between the inner city and developing world are striking. Kids who don’t see their parents. Children who can’t read. Children who don’t have three meals a day. Children and families not meeting their protein or calorie requirements. It was an amazing, humbling experience.”

It’s also an experience that might have helped cement Dharamsi’s long-term plans.

Dharamsi will be moving on to medical school to focus on paediatrics. But her eventual goal is to secure a position with an organization like the World Health Organization or Médecins Sans Frontières, with an eye to help bring a clinical balance to public health policy planning.

“I live and breathe food all the time, and UBC and ISP have enabled me to combine my passions. So I can talk about the science—why our bodies actually need nutrition and the impact it has developmentally—but I can also talk about food from the social sciences perspective, from the humanities and developmental angle.”