First Harvard Undergraduates in Botswana

Undergrad student in Botswana 2007

This spring, three adventurous young women were the first Harvard undergraduates to study abroad in Botswana. The three biology majors lived on the campus of the University of Botswana and took classes there. The greater part of their education took place at the Botswana-Harvard Reference Laboratory.

To learn standard HIV diagnostic techniques, the students spent the first weeks of the semester rotating through the basic laboratories-the CD4 cell count lab, the viral load lab, the serology lab and the PCR lab. For the rest of the term, the students worked on independent research projects.

Jamie Greenwald is a junior from St. Louis. Though – or perhaps because – her father is a physician, she grew up thinking she would be anything but a doctor. She changed her mind in her sophomore year at Harvard and switched to pre-med.

Jamie’s research project evaluated a serologic diagnostic test to distinguish between early and chronic infection of HIV. A related test was developed using HIV-1 subtype B populations in the U.S. She is trying to develop a test for subtype C, the HIV subtype in Botswana. Jamie also played soccer with the University of Botswana girls’ team.

When asked why she was studying in Botswana, Lisa Flannery, a junior from Sterling, Massachusetts, replied, “I thought it might be a little out of my comfort zone, but I wanted to experience something completely different from how and where I had been living. I also think that it is a phenomenal environment in which to study the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is a country that has dealt remarkably well with the current issues and getting the chance to see how it works from the inside was one I could not pass up.”

Her work in the lab concerned HIV infection of the central nervous system. She was interested in HIV/AIDS-related dementia rates amongst viral subtypes. For subtype B, the predominant subtype found in the U.S., rates are known to be high, but less is known about subtype C, found in Botswana and most of southern Africa. She wants to know if a possible difference in rates is influenced by the difficulty in diagnosing dementia in the presence of more pressing opportunistic infections with subtype C, or if it is based in the virus’s inability to actually infect/affect the cells of the central nervous system.

“After spending time in Botswana,” said Lisa, “I feel like I will be more willing to return to Africa later in my life. It has opened up new possibilities for me when I think about living and working abroad and has served as a gateway to taking chances that I wouldn’t have even considered before.” This summer, Lisa will continue her research at the BHP on the molecular aspects of cell tropism with the hopes of developing a senior thesis project.

Though born in Beijing, sophomore Amy Wu grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. In the summer of 2006 she returned to Beijing to work as an intern in the HIV/AIDS Division of the China Center for Disease Control. After her research experience in China and involvement with the Harvard AIDS Coalition, she wanted to visit a place where HIV has a major impact on the population and see firsthand what was happening. “This research abroad program to Botswana was the opportunity I had been waiting for,” said Amy.

She began an HIV immunology project to see whether certain genes related to immune responsiveness are associated with viral suppression in AIDS patients on drug therapy. She is studying samples from patients in a large treatment trial that involves four different drug combinations. She analyzes samples from patients who have failed their first line of drug therapy, as well as patients who were the best responders, having successfully suppressed their viral load for at least two years after HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy) initiation.

“My experience in Botswana has only strengthened my plans to work in international health and medicine in the future,” said Amy. “Coming here has made me realize just how many ways are possible to contribute to this field, whether through basic research, policy, healthcare, or advocacy.” Amy will remain in Gaborone this summer to work with the Clinton Foundation on a rural lab expansion initiative.

The three students also visited clinics associated with the Botswana-Harvard Partnership in Mochudi, Molepolole, and Lobatse. The Program Coordinator, Bukamu Hulela, a native of Botswana and graduate in the Harvard Class of 2005, arranged field trips to Jwaneng Diamond Mine and the Okavanga Delta.

All three students mention a trip to Khutse Game Reserve in the Kalahari desert as a high point of their semester. On a drive in the bush they came across conservation workers darting a male lion to collar him to keep him from being shot by local farmers. “They let us get out of the truck when he was sedated, so we have pictures with this huge lion,” said Jamie.

Lisa, Jamie and Amy were, in many ways, experimental subjects themselves in Harvard’s first undergraduate program in Botswana. The next group of students arriving in Gaborone will benefit from their experiences and suggestions for improvements.

“I have always heard that people from Botswana are incredibly nice and friendly,” said Amy, “but it was still a surprise when I came here. My U.B. friends were excited to teach me about their traditional foods and culture. I will really miss walking down the street and greeting ‘Dumela!’ to almost everyone I pass by.”

About HAI

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health AIDS Initiative (HAI) is dedicated to research, education and leadership to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa and developing countries.