Research Opportunities for Undergrads

Carlos (second from right) with fellow undergrads and a BHP staff member
Carlos (second from right) with fellow undergrads and a BHP staff member

Not many undergraduates have the opportunity to conduct their own laboratory research projects. Harvard students who spend a semester abroad at the Botswana–Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) are a rare exception. Last year, Carlos Becerril, a pre-med social anthropology major, researched drug resistance among antiretroviral-naïve patients with recent HIV infection in Botswana.

Born in Morelia, Mexico, Carlos was 13 when he received a life-saving kidney transplant from his mother. The experience made him want to become a doctor. Because of the transplant, he takes immunosuppressant drugs every day and has to be careful about infections. “If I get the flu, I get the flu for four weeks. It takes a long time for my body to recover.”

After his freshman year at Harvard, Carlos spent the summer in Peru, working at an orphanage for HIV-positive children. The experience motivated him to go to Kenya after his sophomore year, where he volunteered in several HIV clinics around Lake Victoria. He took vital signs, updated records, and helped dispense drugs from the pharmacy. He also spent time counseling people with HIV.

“Doing this helped me realize how similar I am to HIV patients,” he said. “We take similar medications to help prevent us from getting sick because our immune systems aren’t that strong. We have the same issues. I felt so connected to them. That’s why I decided to study abroad in Botswana and do HIV research.”

Carlos did get very sick while in Kenya, possibly from food poisoning, and ended up in the hospital. “I’ve been through that,” he said. “If it happens again, I know how to respond. You grow from the experience.”

Unlike other students, Carlos had never worked in a lab before arriving in Botswana, but that did not stop him from pursuing his goal. Part of the semester abroad program involves working closely with mentors. Carlos’s junior mentor was Rebecca Mitchell, who earned a biology degree at Harvard in 2003 and was doing research at the BHP while pursuing her DVM/PhD in epidemiology from Cornell.

“Carlos came to the lab with no experience and a limited biology background,” says Mitchell, who spent hours teaching Carlos the fundamentals of laboratory science. “I was surprised at the dedication he demonstrated once he began seeing the results of our work. By the end of the semester, he had a solid understanding of the technical processes he was performing in the laboratory, as well as the underlying biology.”

For his research project, Carlos analyzed samples from four patients with early HIV infections who had not yet begun antiretroviral therapy. The samples were from a previous BHP study and had been taken between 2005 and 2008. Using the latest laboratory techniques, Carlos tested the samples for drug-resistance mutations, which would have indicated the possibility that a patient had become infected with a drug-resistant strain of HIV. He found no transmitted drug resistance in the four samples, which helped confirm research from other scientists indicating that transmitted drug resistance is not prevalent in Botswana at this point in time.

Now back at Harvard, Carlos continues to do HIV laboratory research. After graduation this May, he hopes to get a Master’s in Global Health, and then attend medical school. He continues to pursue his goals and also to take his pills.