The long road toward earning a PhD is almost over for Sunitha Zechariah, and she exudes gratitude for all those who have helped her along the way.
“Incredible people … I could not have asked for better committee members nor a better advisor,” said Zechariah, who will graduate with a PhD in Applied Health Sciences through the College of Allied Health Sciences and The Graduate School. “When I was looking for a PhD program across the country, most of them were asking for full-time commitments, which I couldn’t do due to family obligations. Then I looked into Augusta University and it was a great fit, as it was set up for full-time working professionals.
“The faculty and staff selflessly spent time — many of them spent their time during weekends with me over this four-year process. Dr. Ashley Gess was available; Dr. Jennifer Waller answered my questions while she was hiking; Dr. Judith Stallings did additional sessions; and Dr. Leigh Lehman, my major advisor, if I emailed her, she responded almost immediately. Dr. Gianluca De Leo supported me from the beginning of the program and Dr. Raymond Chong, my program advisor, has been my tremendous support throughout. That’s the kind of support I got from this program.”
Zechariah said growing up in India, part of the culture is the parents’ dream of their children’s career path. While her mother wanted her to pursue a career in either medicine or engineering, her father was an Ayurvedic practitioner and influenced her to consider nutrition.
“He thought I would shine in nutrition and I was pulled toward it anyway,” Zechariah said. “I saw how my dad treated his patients and the outcomes of his treatment, and I felt food and herbs as medicine would help with healing patients.”
Zechariah’s academic journey began at the University of Madras in India, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. She earned a master’s degree in dietetics and food service management two years later at Avinashilingam Deemed University.
She received a three-year scholarship to the University of Wollongong in Australia, where she earned a master’s honors degree in nutrition, and she completed coursework and an internship at the University of Alabama in 2005 to obtain her registered dietitian credentials here in the U.S.
Zechariah said her end goal has always been to achieve a PhD, something her mother consistently encouraged her toward. After spending several years working full-time for Morrison Healthcare and being a mom to daughter Karishma and son Roshan, she enrolled at Augusta University in fall 2017.
Life’s hardships made the first several years difficult, with she and her husband Alvin having to address medical issues. Zechariah then had to deal with her mother being bedridden in 2020 after a year of battling a terminal illness.
COVID-19 protocols prevented Zechariah from bringing her mother to the U.S. or even visiting her until early this year.
“I would have finished by summer but I had to extend it into the fall,” she said. “My mom passed in March, but I was thankful and blessed to be at her side. She was my prayer warrior … any time I needed support, I would ask her to specifically pray over a presentation or exam and she would do it.”
She quarantined for 15 days because of a post-vaccination COVID-19 infection, but was still able to complete her office and school work even though it pushed back her graduation. She again praised the support system through this program to helping her stay on top of her work.
“All of my professors and Dr. Chong were very willing to work with me remotely … Everybody was in touch; the communication was still there,” Zechariah said.
Zechariah has worked tirelessly during the past 16 years in the U.S with continuous support from her family. She has amassed multiple awards and accomplishments throughout her career, including being named the 2018 Outstanding Dietitian of the Year from the Georgia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“It’s based on all of your contributions to the dietetic community and it definitely validates your contributions; I was really humbled and honored to get that … It was a huge surprise for me. That inspires me to continue to give more to the dietetic community. That’s why I chose a dissertation topic where I could contribute more,” she said.
“My PhD is on the development of a competency tool to evaluate dietitians’ competence on their performance of nutrition-focused physical exams on patients to diagnose malnutrition. Hopefully it will be helpful to the dietitian community. I always wanted to give back because I got a lot from all during my school years.”