Melissa Zahralban-Steele: Doing It Well

Melissa Zahralban-Steele, Max Essex, Vlad Novitsky

The young researchers who work in laboratory of Prof. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, often use the experience as a springboard to their own important work. Take, for example, Melissa Zahralban-Steele, currently working in the Essex Lab.

Born and raised in Islip, Long Island, Melissa is the second of eight children and the first in her family to go to college. After earning a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Clinical Laboratory Sciences from the University of Massachusetts, Melissa was awarded a CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases Fellowship, which took her to the Colorado Department of Public Health in Denver. There, she developed a protocol using real-time PCR to better detect the rabies virus.

When her fellowship ended, Melissa wanted to return to the Boston area, where her husband was from, and stay in public health. “I usually see the big picture of things, and with public health I’m able to do that,” said Melissa.

She applied for a job as a research assistant at the Harvard AIDS Initiative and was quickly hired. During the day, Melissa processes blood samples from HIV-infected people for a large HIV prevention study in Botswana. “Melissa came when we were starting to work on near-full-length genome sequences,” said Dr. Vlad Novitsky, a Harvard research scientist and Melissa’s supervisor. “We developed a good protocol that we keep improving. She is at the center of these innovations.”

By sequencing the genome of the HIV virus of thousands of infected study participants, the Essex team hopes to get a better understanding of how HIV spreads within a community. “I’ve been able to be a part of important research that I think is going to have a lasting effect,” said Melissa.

Melissa Zahralban-Steele
Melissa Zahralban-Steele, photo by Len Rubenstein

Melissa has the precision and ingenuity necessary for bench research, but she also possesses the warmth and patience to teaches others. Lab assistants from the Botswana Harvard Partnership frequently come to the Essex Lab to learn new skills. “She works patiently with people who start at different levels,” said Novitsky. “Those people are now teaching other young people the techniques that Melissa taught them. I cannot imagine that we could be where we are now without her.”

In the evenings, Melissa is a full-time student in the Masters of Public Health (MPH) program at Tufts University School of Medicine, where she concentrates on epidemiology, biostatistics, and global health.

As part of her program, she flew to Namibia last summer to work as a research assistant on a pilot study. The goal of the study was to develop an intervention to decrease hazardous alcohol consumption among people living with HIV. Like Botswana, Namibia is a sub-Saharan country severely burdened by HIV/AIDS, with an adult HIV prevalence of 13.3%.

Melissa’s summer conducting fieldwork in southern Africa helped shape her future. “Before going to Namibia, I knew I wanted to pursue my PhD, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay with laboratory research or do more social behavioral research,” she said. “When I was in Namibia, I could see how much laboratory research was needed.”

The idea of setting up research laboratories so local people can work on endemic diseases interests her. “The Botswana Harvard Partnership is a good model for how to pursue scientific research in developing countries. I think it would be really helpful for countries like Namibia to use BHP as a model.” she said. “That’s what I may want to be a part of in the future.”

Melissa expects to earn her MPH this May. She hopes to begin a PhD program in genetics or virology in 2018. “I have the impression that no matter what she’ll be doing, she’ll be doing it well,” concluded Novitsky.

Title Image: Melissa Zahralban-Steele, Prof. Max Essex, Dr. Vlad Novitsky. Photo by Kent Dayton