Profile: Rebeca Plank

Rebeca Plank with her parents in Bahia, Brazil
Rebeca Plank with her parents in Bahia, Brazil

By Martha Henry

If it hadn’t been for public health, Rebeca Plank might not have been conceived. Her parents met at a medical conference in the late 1960s.

Her father, Stephen Plank, a physician from the U.S., did his medical residency in the Panama Canal Zone. While there, he was dismayed to discover that he had to send people out from the hospital to the same conditions that had brought them there in the first place. He began to understand that while clinical medicine was important, the best way to make a lasting difference in people’s lives was to address root problems. He went back to school and earned a doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

Plank’s mother, María Lucila Milanesi, grew up in rural Brazil, one of nine children. At a time when few children went to school, Milanesi, a determined young woman, attended medical school and became a pediatrician. Then, as Plank puts it, “She got tired of watching kids die of preventable causes so she, too, decided to address the root of the problem and obtained a doctorate in public health from the University of Sao Paulo.”

Plank’s parents met at a research conference when they were both living and working in Santiago. They married and Rebeca was born. The young family left Chile in 1970 and Plank spent most of her childhood in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, before moving to California at the age of ten. She attended Pomona College.

“About halfway through college I decided I would become a medical anthropologist because I was fascinated by the intersection of health care and culture—how the two can help and hinder each other,” said Plank. Her goal was to work in international public health. For her senior project, she analyzed HIV prevention posters from all over the world.

When her anthropology professors encouraged her to go to medical school, she followed their advice, getting an MD from the University of California, San Francisco in 2001. During medical school, she worked in Brazil, first on a clinical rotation in infectious diseases and then as a research assistant. She also spent a year working on a research project in rural Vietnam.

After graduation, Plank headed to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to complete her training, first as a resident, then as chief medical resident, and finally as a clinical and research fellow.

It was at the International AIDS Society Conference in Rio in 2005 that Plank found a focus for her work. At that meeting, Dr. Bertrand Auvert announced the results of the first randomized trial of circumcision in adult males in South Africa. “When I heard him say that circumcision reduced the incidence rate of HIV infections in adult men in their study by more than 60%, I thought, finally we have something that works that can actually change the course of the epidemic.”

Rebeca Plank in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana
Rebeca Plank in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana

With the help of HAI researcher Dr. Shahin Lockman, Plank began planning a research project to examine infant circumcision in Africa. Plank’s hard work and tenacity led to her becoming Principal Investigator of the clinical trial, Infant Male Circumcision in Gaborone, Botswana, and Surrounding Areas: Feasibility, Safety and Acceptability.

Plank is quick to credit the mentors in her life, especially Lockman, who gave her invaluable guidance as a clinician/scientist with experience setting up clinical trials in Botswana. Plank also praises Prof. Max Essex, Chair of HAI, and Dr. Roger Shapiro for their generous help with her research.

These days, Plank splits her time between conducting HIV prevention research in Botswana and seeing patients in Boston. She is an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital where she has won a number of awards for excellence in teaching medical students and residents. She is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is also a Research Associate at HSPH. She was awarded an NIH Career Development Award to support her work in Botswana.

When time allows, she’s an avid reader. Her favorite books reflect her interest in challenging, often daunting situations, and include The Worst Journey in the World about Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole, and Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. She also has an international pen and pencil collection that includes pens from Tierra del Fuego and Russia.

Plank plans on staying in the field of HIV prevention. Building upon her circumcision research is the next step for her. “Botswana is stretched thin with regard to physicians, especially now that adult male circumcision services are in place. There are just not enough doctors to meet the demand,” she explains. “Wouldn’t it make sense to have the already highly trained and skilled nurse/midwives in labor and delivery also circumcise the babies before they go home? That’s the next thing we’d like to look at because it might be more sustainable in resource-constrained settings.”