Raabya Rossenkhan was always interested in science, so majoring in biology at the University of Botswana (UB) was an obvious choice. When she was offered a scholarship to continue her education, she saw the need to study HIV/AIDS. The year was 2003. In Botswana, the HIV prevalence among pregnant women was almost 40%.
“A lot of people were dying at the time. I had friends whose parents were dying. There was a lot of stigma associated with HIV. You would hear stories, but nobody ever directly spoke about it,” said Raabya. She wanted to help end the crisis that was devastating her country.
There was just one problem. When Raabya indicated that she wanted to conduct HIV/AIDS research, the UB Biological Sciences Department said it would be difficult. For the Master’s programs, there was either a food option or an environmental option. Since HIV didn’t fall into either of those categories and UB didn’t have the facilities for HIV research, she would have to find another topic.
She didn’t. Stubborn and resourceful, she thought about studying HIV in breast milk, which could be classified as food. “But where on earth am I going to find breast milk to do this project?” she wondered.
Cue Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u, who at the time was head of the lab at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership. He visited the UB campus to teach a small class on how to do an HIV PCR. PCR is short for Polymerase Chain Reaction, a tool in molecular biology used to amplify a single copy of a piece of DNA to generate millions of copies of a particular sequence. Of the few students in the class, only Raabya’s first PCR worked that day. This gave her the confidence to ask Ndung’u for advice on getting samples.
He laughed and said, “You won’t believe this, but we have hundreds of breast milk samples stored in our freezers. The only catch is that you’ll have to convince Max, a professor from Harvard, that you’re good enough to use them.” He was referring to Dr. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, as well as the Botswana Harvard Partnership (BHP). Ndung’u suggested that she come up with a proposal and present it to Essex, who would be there in two weeks.
Raabya developed a hypothesis: If there’s inflammation in the breast of a breastfeeding mother, there will be higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. If the mother has higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, she will have higher levels of virus due to transcriptional up regulation of HIV-1. Her project was to measure the level of these cytokines and of the virus in breast milk to see if there was an association.
“I remember feeling nervous before going into his office,” said Raabya about her first meeting with Essex. “I had this mental picture of a scary, stern Harvard professor. When I opened the door, there was this grandfatherly, soft-spoken man who made me feel at ease.”
Essex asked her three questions: Why did she want to do HIV/AIDS research? What was her research question? “Then he asked me what my budget was,” said Raabya. “When I told him, he had this little smile that I didn’t understand at the time.”
It was Friday. He said, “You can start Monday.”
“That for me was a turning point in my career,” said Raabya. “Someone having faith in me as a young African scientist.” Her project, which she conducted in the BHP laboratory, ended up being more comprehensive and cost ten times more than her initial budget.
Speaking recently, Ndung’u said, “It is worth noting that when Raabya became involved in HIV research, no one else at the University of Botswana was involved in molecular research on HIV, despite the obvious importance of this field to the local realities. She overcame great obstacles to enter the field.” Ndung’u is now the Scientific Director of the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Both he and Essex became Raabya’s mentors.
After completing her Master’s in Applied Microbiology and publishing several papers, Raabya decided to pursue a doctorate. Her research explored what happens to HIV following transmission of the virus. She worked with another mentor, Dr. Vlad Novitsky, on the Tshedimoso Study, which looked at what happens in the body during acute HIV-1C infection. Identifying and recruiting recently infected people to participate in the study was a challenge. Raabya did radio interviews, gave presentations at clinics, and spoke at hospitals. “I used to be a shy person,” she said. “Exposure to American researchers taught me to be more assertive and confident.”
Raabya earned her PhD in Virology in 2014. She currently works as a postdoc in the Essex Lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “Max gives you the freedom to do what you want, but you have to be driven,” she said.
“She’s looking for ways to better understand why the southern African epidemic is so much worse,” said Essex.
“Raabya has the ability and interest to translate science into the needs of the community that she serves,” said Ndung’u.
Speaking for herself, Raabya said, “I want to see my contributions impact people’s lives in a positive way—to make the world a slightly better place because I was in it.”
Title image: Dr. Raabya Rossenkhan working with a colleague in the BHP Lab