Postgraduate Profiles

Phoebe Spencer

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Thesis: The influences of ecological variation on the growth trajectories of rural East Timorese children

Timor-Leste is a developing country where infrastructure in rural areas is poor, and large-scale reliance on subsistence agriculture means food availability is seasonal and often unpredictable. Child mortality in Timor-Leste is high, and growth is well below international standards. In this project, I am examining variation in rural East Timorese children’s growth using cross-sectional and longitudinal methods. The study is based in two rural field sites, one in the mountains and one on the south coastal plain. I will model growth curves for these populations to provide the first growth reference for Timorese children. From this, I will examine variation in individual growth trajectories to assess the importance of growth plasticity (for example catch-up growth and seasonal growth fluctuations) relative to local ecology, and for evidence of early life growth programming. As physical activity competes with growth for energy allocation, and children in Timor-Leste contribute to energetically costly domestic and agricultural tasks, I will assess children's physical activity level using accelerometry to determine the relationship between growth and activity. Large-scale, hierarchical ecological models will be constructed to examine the relationships of family and community ecology on child survival and growth. The combination of these methodologies will provide a comprehensive understanding of the way Timorese children grow, and why.

Why my research is important

Poor child growth is a common problem in much of the developing world; globally, 161 million children under the age of five are stunted (poor height-for-age), half of whom live in Asia. This is a global issue of immediate child survival and wellbeing, and a future loss of human capital, because malnourished children do not reach their developmental potential. Detailed research into child growth under challenging conditions will help us to more accurately and efficiently target intervention programmes.


Measuring grip strength in Natarbora, Timor-Leste

Feb 2015

Aug 2018