Touch Down in Botswana: My Gap Year in an HIV/AIDS Lab

Elliot Eton in Botswana
By Elliot Eton

I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac at Sir Seretse Khama Airport in Gaborone, Botswana. It was not as hot and humid as I had expected. After months of preparation, I had finally arrived. I was thrilled! My excitement, though, was not without nervousness. For one, my flight had been delayed. I was wondering if my pick-up ride would still be waiting. For another, I, an eighteen-year-old high school graduate, was about to spend the next few months without family or friends in an entirely unfamiliar place.

Why did I decide to pursue a gap year? When I began the college admissions process, taking a gap year never really crossed my mind. I expected to follow the traditional path: graduating high school in the spring and starting college in the fall. Indeed, this is what most of my friends did.

But I, and nearly a hundred other members of the incoming Harvard College class, did something different: we took a full year before moving into our freshman houses. Perhaps we had reacted similarly to an article attached to our acceptance letters in which the Dean of Admissions noted that gap year students “come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed…” Being able to structure my own time, exploring and discovering passions while unencumbered by standard academics, was attractive.

My high school did prepare me well for such an independent journey. It sponsored “Senior Spring Project,” where we seniors were allowed to plan our own independent studies, with goals to explore interests, develop skills, and try new things. I designed my project to be interdisciplinary, as I had appreciated how my school curriculum was designed around the Socratic method – critical discussion and synthesis across fields. As an example, through the lens of Charles Darwin’s experiences and observations, which we were exploring in AP Biology at the lab bench, I was better able to elucidate Herman Melville’s musings about nature in Moby-Dick, which we were discussing in English class around a large oak table. For my project, I shadowed a neurosurgeon, learned about the social, economic, and governmental dimensions of deforestation in Haiti, and continued Advanced Placement (AP) courses, while also rowing Varsity crew on the Charles and playing piano.

A gap year would allow me to continue diverse activities. Also, since I would be spending four more years in Cambridge, where I have lived for the past decade, I appreciated the opportunity to satisfy an envie d’ailleurs (a desire for new horizons). I looked forward to exploring the intersection of diverse fields—this in a global context.

More specifically, I am interested in medicine and understanding the path from the bench to the bedside to the community and back. How does one design an effective experiment to answer a question? How are discoveries made in the lab applied to the treatment of patients in the clinic? To what extent do results from the clinic then inform public policy? How are new strategies communicated and effectively delivered to the populations most in need?

I first heard of Dr. Max Essex, the Harvard AIDS Initiative (HAI), and the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) when I stumbled upon an article covering the launch of a large treatment-as-prevention trial called Ya Tsie, which roughly translates from Setswana to “Teamwork bears more fruit than individual efforts.” Bingo! I learned how this study innovatively combines and strengthens traditional treatment efforts, targets individuals who are most likely to transmit HIV, and evaluates transmission networks based on genetic relationships among viral strains. Dr. Max Essex established HAI and BHP as venues for ongoing studies. These organizations and their pursuits embodied my interests.=

I started at HAI in Boston in the fall with ethics and biosafety training, followed by taking online courses and reviewing cutting-edge research in bioinformatics, virology, immunology, and HIV/AIDS. I learned how host-pathogen co-evolution, where change in one subject’s genetic composition triggers change in the other (and vice versa), can affect virulence and disease progression. I learned how to apply computational methods to genomic and molecular phylogenetic analyses in host-pathogen studies. I attended seminars at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. I saw how basic science and statistics connect to clinical medicine, engineering, economics, law, and government and learned about the science of leadership from expert practitioners. The pursuit of veritas was tangible.

Sir Seretse Khama Airport, photo by Shosholoza
Sir Seretse Khama Airport, photo by Shosholoza

After collecting my bags at the airport and going through the customs line, I saw my name on a sign and was greeted by the BHP driver, who would bring me to my new home in Gaborone. As we were walking out of the airport, he said hello to Dr. Rosemary Musonda, the BHP Lab Director, heading to her car. We had been on the same flight without having realized it! She warmly welcomed me to the country and let me know that everybody was eager to meet me the next morning. I would soon dive deep into the scientific method, beginning my own project studying the host-pathogen interaction between human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules and HIV. Here we go! I could not wait.



Elliot Eton is an incoming freshman at Harvard College. This is the first in a series of posts about his gap year conducting research at the Botswana Harvard Partnership.