If a boy from a Botswana village wins second place in the national science fair for a project on optimizing alcoholic brews, predictions about his future could involve his getting into trouble, or working for a large beer company, or, if you’re Dr. Simani Gaseitsiwe, becoming the director of one of Africa’s top research labs.
The youngest of seven siblings, Simani was born in 1974, in Mathangwane, a small village in northeast Botswana. He attended the local primary school, then high school in Francistown, 20 miles away. There he exceled at science. After his team won second place in the national science fair for a project on the fermentation of local brews, and third place the next year for a project on how the design of airplane wings influences lift and drag, Simani was hooked on experimental science.
After high school, he taught math and science in a village junior high school to fulfill his year of National Service. “It got me interested in teaching, which is something I’m still doing,” he said. Then it was off to the capital, Gaborone, to pursue studies for a Bachelor’s of science at the University of Botswana. The first in his family to go directly to university, Simani placed in the top 5% of students, which qualified him to travel abroad for the last two years of his degree. He was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh’s program in medical laboratory technology and completed his undergraduate studies in the U.S.
He returned to Gaborone in 1998, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. In Botswana, about a quarter of adults and over a third of pregnant women were infected with HIV. Two years earlier, the Harvard AIDS Institute, under the leadership of Prof. Max Essex, had entered into a partnership with Botswana’s Ministry of Health to combat the epidemic, establishing the Botswana Harvard Partnership (BHP).
“It was a very ambitious project,” said Dr. Monty Montano, then an Essex postdoc and now a researcher at Harvard Medical School. “Everyone was asking if you could build an infrastructure in Botswana. Max never asked if it was possible. He asked what our timeline should be.”
Essex’s team renovated a dusty warehouse on the grounds of Princess Marina Hospital, turning it into a lab for HIV testing and research. They advertised in the local newspaper for lab techs. Simani, who was teaching chemistry at the Institute of Health Sciences next door to the hospital, saw the ad and applied.
“I remember asking him why he would want to be part of the initial reference lab,” said Montano, who interviewed Simani. “He said he thought it was his obligation as a citizen of Botswana to engage in a proactive effort to combat the virus. It was a patriotic motivation on his part—a recognition of the graveness of the times.”
The first Botswana Harvard Partnership (BHP) lab assistants included Simani and three other young Batswana. It was an exciting time, as Dr. Vlad Novitisky and other scientists from the Harvard AIDS Institute taught the crew new skills and techniques. “Almost everything we were doing, it was the first time it was being done in Botswana,” remembers Simani.
After a year of performing routine HIV lab tests, Simani’s focus shifted to research. In 2001, he spent eight months as a Fogarty Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, learning advanced molecular biology techniques. The Essex Lab was hard at work on the molecular characterization of HIV-1C, the subtype prevalent in Botswana, looking for answers about why HIV/AIDS was more devastating in southern Africa than elsewhere in the world.
It was as a Fogarty Fellow that Simani began thinking about a PhD. “That was a time when I got to interact with Thumbi, who was just finishing,” he said, referring to Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u, a Kenyan-born researcher who is now Scientific Director of the HIV Pathogenesis Programe at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. “Seeing a fellow African graduating with a PhD and the work that he had done, you really felt motivated. You had role models that you could look up to.”
In December of 2001, Simani was back in Gaborone to see then President Festus Mogae officially open the just-constructed Botswana Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory. The three-story, 25,000-square-foot, state-of-art laboratory was located next door to the old warehouse. The new building announced Botswana’s commitment to HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and research. It also provided BHP’s expanding staff with a headquarters.
In the sparkling new lab, Simani focused on HIV-1 drug resistance genotyping and other research projects. Though shy, he had a reputation for being reliable and responsible. When not at the lab, he liked to lift weights or work out at a local gym. In 2004, he married a young urban planner named Chipo.
When it came time to continue his education, Simani saw an advertisement in NatureJobs for PhD scholarships to work on HIV and TB co-infection at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute. The scholarships were funded by the European Union through the Marie Curie Fellowships and were primarily for Europeans. “The odds are stacked against me,” he thought, “but why not just try?”
He didn’t have a Master’s degree, usually required for such a program. Essex, who had done his postdoc at Karolinska, sent a letter in support of his application, explaining that the papers Simani contributed to while working at BHP were the equivalent of a Master’s.
Simani was accepted and went to Stockholm, along with Chipo and their three young children. He earned his PhD from Karolinska in 2009 and stayed for a postdoc.
At this point in his career, as a credentialed, experienced bench scientist, Simani had a number of options. He chose to return to BHP in the role of Deputy Laboratory Research Director, responsible for supervising basic research, as well as guiding and mentoring students and staff. “In terms of doing research in Botswana, there is still no place as good as BHP, especially if you’re a lab person,” said Simani.
“He’s a good mentor,” said Tapiwa Nkhisang. In 2015, while attending Smith College, she spent the summer at the BHP lab. “He has faith in people. If you need help, he’s there for you, but he gives you the freedom to try things. I like how he sort of let me fly.”
“The important thing is for them to think for themselves,” said Simani about mentoring, whether it’s Harvard juniors, or Fogarty Fellows, or graduate students from the University of Botswana. “I let them develop their own ideas, get them on track, and support them. To a great extent, that has been the way I have been brought up in the science field.”
In January 2017, Simani became the BHP’s new Laboratory Director. One of his responsibilities is training young scientists to build research capacity in Botswana. In many ways, he personifies the goal himself. “Simani has the intellectual talent and the technical tools,” said Max Essex. “He’ll do great things as a scientist.”
His current research projects focus on three areas: characterizing drug-resistance mutations in HIV-1C infected patients; exploring the Hepatitis B virus genotypes circulating in Botswana and their impact on response to HIV antiretroviral therapy; and investigating latent TB infection and predictors for active TB in patients on antiretroviral therapy.
Along with his work responsibilities, his family continues to grow. He and his wife now have six kids: four daughters, ages 14, 11, 3, 2, and two sons, ages 12 and 5. “It’s quite hectic, but we make it work. There’s never a dull moment,” he said, laughing. Somehow, amidst work and family, Simani found time to run his first marathon this May.
Much has happened since Simani began work at the BHP in 2000. Of the other lab assistants who started with him, sadly one passed away a few years later, the other two, like Simani, earned advanced degrees and continue to work in medical science.
“Life, at the end of the day, is finite, so everyday counts,” said Simani. “ If you can come up with something that could add one more day to someone’s life, that’s so important. Biomedical research is one of those areas that can really help in terms of adding one more day.”
Title image: Dr Simani Gaseitsiwe, left, confers with a colleague in the lab.