Growing up, Kathleen Wirth knew she wanted to see the world outside of her small hometown of Irmo, South Carolina. She felt she didn’t quite fit in. Her mother’s family had fled from Cuba in 1960. Her grandfather, who’d been a respected doctor in Havana, worked as a hospital janitor until he could qualify to practice medicine in America. Though she got into minor trouble, it wasn’t enough to keep Kathleen from becoming her high school valedictorian. A scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill was her ticket out of Irmo.
Maybe that wasn’t far enough away. Once in college, despite the fact that she maintained a perfect grade point average, “it just all felt pointless,” remembers Kathleen. The summer after her freshman year, she worked for Budget car rental, figured out their computer system, and within a few weeks was a star employee. She saved enough money to drive with friends to British Columbia. They worked odd jobs and snowboarded at Whistler Mountain, which was open all year. At the end of the summer, her friends were ready to return to UNC. Kathleen wasn’t.
She asked to be dropped off in Seattle. There she found work tutoring at a school for kids who’d been expelled from other schools for truancy, violence, or drugs. “Essentially no school would take them,” said Kathleen. “This was their last stop.” Most of the kids were from poor, immigrant families. Many of them lived in single- or no-parent households.
The job, while difficult and exhausting, gave Kathleen the sense of purpose she’d been lacking. “It taught me what it means to not have a security blanket,” said Kathleen. “For the first time in my life, I felt grateful for my circumstances.” With newfound perspective, she returned to UNC and earned a degree in economics, graduating with highest honors.
After graduation, she worked on public health economics at the consulting firm RTI International. “It was math, but math for a good cause,” said Kathleen. She assisted with a cost-effectiveness analysis for a Hepatitis A vaccination. The analysis helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) make decisions.
Kathleen became interested in the question of how knowledge is put to use. “How do we go from what we know to making actual public health impact?” The question led her to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), where she earned a doctorate in epidemiology. In her research on sex workers in India, she published one of the first rigorous studies on HIV and human trafficking.
“Kathleen has a great analytic mind, paired with a deep-rooted commitment to and passion for public health,” said Dr. Eric Tchetgen Tchetgen, a Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiologic Methods at Harvard and Kathleen’s mentor. “She can both do high-impact science and be an advocate for public health change and justice, which is not a common combination of qualities found in researchers.”
After graduation, she moved to Botswana with her husband Matt, a physician whom she met in class (Epi 202) at HSPH. Kathleen researched what factors influence the acceptance of male circumcision. Clinical trials, many done in sub-Saharan Africa, have demonstrated that circumcision reduces HIV infection risk by 50 percent to 60 percent. The couple stayed in Africa for two years.
Kathleen recently became the senior epidemiologist for the Botswana Combination Prevention Project (BCPP), a large HIV/AIDS trial that aims to dramatically reduce the rate of new HIV infections at a community level. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, is a Principal Investigator of the trial. “It’s a challenge to work on a study of this magnitude,” said Kathleen, referring to the over 100,000 people involved in the BCPP.
“Kathleen’s previous experience in Botswana adds insight about and understanding of conditions on the ground for BCPP, which make her a very effective lead epidemiologist for the study,” said Tchetgen Tchetgen.
“There are a series of evidence-based interventions that we know work,” she said. “The idea is that if you can put them together, you get something that’s greater than the sum of the parts—what we in epidemiology call synergistic effects. The hope is that this combination of efforts will disrupt transmission and reverse the epidemic.”
“It’s the ultimate implementation study,” continued Kathleen. “Although it’s a randomized trial, it’s very much in the real world. We’re going into communities and talking to people who don’t normally participate in research. We’re trying to marry the rigor of randomized trials with the reality of implementing interventions in the field.”
Title image: Kathleen Wirth sitting atop a desiccated camel thorn tree in Deadvlei, a salt pan located in the central Namib desert of Namibia.