Oddly enough, Kelesitse Phiri learned about the enormity of the AIDS epidemic in her native Botswana when she was studying at Bryn Mawr College in suburban Philadelphia. The year was 2000. That June UNAIDS released figures showing that Botswana’s adult HIV prevalence at the end of 1999 was 35.8%, the highest in the world.
“At that time, people back home didn’t talk about HIV or that somebody had died of AIDS, but more and more we were hearing about it in the global news. At school people were coming up to me and saying ‘What’s going on in your country?’” Kele, as her friends and colleagues call her, began wondering how the infection rate could be so high in her country, one of the most developed in Africa. To learn more, she enrolled in a course called “The Sociology of AIDS.” It was a decision that changed her life.
As part of the course, Kele volunteered at an HIV Care Clinic in North Philadelphia that served poor, urban men. She interviewed patients about their concerns and needs. Occasionally she sat in on doctor-patient visits. This work and her studies fueled Kele’s growing interest in pursuing a career that would address the epidemic in her country. Her sociology teacher asked, “Have you heard of public health?”
Kele was born in Mochudi, a village in southern Botswana, in 1979. She graduated from Maru-a-Pula High School in the capitol, Gaborone, then received a scholarship for a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy. When she graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in math in 2003, she was awarded a two-year Fogarty Fellowship.
She spent her first fellowship year working as a biostatistician trainee at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) for the Mashi Study, crunching numbers in Boston for a clinical trial that was actually taking place in Botswana. The Mashi Study was trying to determine the best drug regimen to prevent breast-feeding HIV-positive women from infecting their infants, while also protecting the mothers from drug resistance in the future. Kele spent her second year at the Botswana-Harvard Partnership in Gaborone, still helping with data management on the Mashi Study, but also getting hands on experience by visiting clinics and talking with mothers. The field work was rewarding. “It’s one thing to hear about HIV. It’s another to be in a clinic and see people lined up outside, waiting for their medications and to see the doctor.”
At the end of her fellowship, Kele decided to pursue a PhD in epidemiology at HSPH. Her research will focus on the long term effects of antiretroviral therapy on HIV-infected children in Botswana, some of whom have been infected since birth. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with these kids five or eight years after starting ARV therapy,” says Kele. “Now that Botswana has implemented pediatric HIV/AIDS care, we need to be prepared as these kids get older.”
When she finishes her PhD, Kele hopes to conduct HIV/AIDS research in Botswana or southern Africa. She credits her “Sociology of AIDS” teacher at Bryn Mawr who introduced her to public health and Max Essex of the Harvard AIDS Initiative and the Botswana-Harvard Partnerships as role models. “Whatever questions I’m going to be asking, I want them to be not just for publishing, but to inform policy in terms of the programs that are in the country and what is needed.”
Kelesitse Phiri is currently supported by a generous grant from the MAC AIDS Fund.