Nutrition student awarded Claude McCarthy Fellowship

Hajar Mazahery, nutritional sciences PhD student and recipient of the Claude McCarthy Fellowship.

Nutritional sciences PhD student Hajar Mazahery has been awarded the Claude McCarthy Fellowship, funding a trip to Spain for the Vitamin D Workshop. She receives $3500 to attend the four-day annual symposium in Barcelona in May 2018.

Ms Mazahery’s thesis, entitled “The role of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids in children with autism spectrum disorder”, investigates the role of vitamin D and n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The 12-month randomised project involves a placebo-controlled intervention trial in children with ASD aged two-and-a-half to eight years.

“Children were randomly allocated to vitamin D, omega-3, a combination of both or a placebo. Children took the supplements for one year and changes in behavioural profile were assessed at the beginning and end of the year,” Ms Mazahery says

Internationally, the prevalence of autism appears to be increasing but the cause is unknown. In New Zealand one child in every 100 is diagnosed with a condition on the autism spectrum. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex neurological condition and is associated with difficulties in the areas of social communication and stereotyped and restricted behaviours or interests that have a negative impact on everyday life.

“Conditions such as ASD are frustrating for both health professionals and the families of those affected because treatments sometimes work and sometimes don’t,” Ms Mazahery says. “Desperate parents will try dietary interventions for which there is no scientific evidence. Alongside genetic susceptibility, there are several environmental factors contributing to the causes of ASD. There is strong evidence to suggest vitamin D and n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, both individually and synergistically, have the potential to improve the symptoms of ASD.

“We aimed to investigate the impact of these two nutrients on ASD symptoms. To our knowledge there are no robust randomised control trials with these nutrients, and this study is the first to investigate both nutrients using a robust study design. The findings of this trial could be influential in ASD clinical and research settings,” she says.

Born in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, Ms Mazahery immigrated to New Zealand in 2005, and now lives in Albany on Auckland’s North Shore. She was delighted and proud to be granted the fellowship. “I think awards like this is a wonderful way to show appreciation for students, their efforts and research projects, in addition to raising morale.”

She is encouraging others to apply for the fellowship. “Clearly define your goals, understand your eligibility, show who you are and why you are a great fit for the fellowship and make sure your referees are people who have known you for a while and can truly show who you are and what your successes and strengths are. In a few words, put your heart into the application.”

Through her postgraduate studies and working as a research assistant at Massey University, Ms Mazahery says she has found her vocation – conducting scientific research. “I now truly want to follow my passion and work as a research scientist in the field of nutritional sciences for universities or research organisations.”

She is the 5th Massey student to receive one of these fellowships in 2017. The other students are:

Heather Collins – Dairy farmers' responses to water quality interventions: A Case Study in the Manawatū-Wanganui Region of New Zealand.

Ella Kroch – Exploring the Effectiveness of Combined Ketamine and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Treatment Resistant Depression: A Pilot Case Series.

Alexia Mengelberg – Investigating the effects of a DHA fish oil supplement on cognitive performance in older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A 12-month randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled trial based in Wellington.

Sarah Pirihaku – Statistical inference for population based measures of risk-reduction.

Wesley Webb -  Cultural evolution of song diversity in New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura).

These students have received in total almost $19,000 collectively to share their research and/or conduct research activities overseas.

Dean Research Associate Professor Tracy Riley says the fellowship is significant for students. “There is such limited funding available for students, either personally or through universities, who are studying full time to present their research work at international conferences or liaise with international researchers by visiting their institutions. Part of being a researcher is sharing your ideas, networking and connecting with others through the types of experiences this funding enables. Doctoral students are contributing new, original research that needs to be shared,” she says.

The Claude McCarthy Fellowship, is named after the late Claude McCarthy who graduated in 1913 from Canterbury College with a Bachelor of Arts. He lived and worked abroad for many years and died in Spain in 1978. The fellowship fund he established is managed by the Public Trust and fellows are selected by the Vice-Chancellor's Committee.

The fellowship is to enable graduates of a New Zealand university, who are registered and enrolled for a doctoral degree, to travel overseas for short periods to present research work at conferences and/or conduct research leading towards their doctoral degree.

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