Young Researchers in Botswana

Three Harvard undergraduates spent last summer at the Botswana–Harvard Partnership (BHP). Under the direction of Max Essex, Chair of HAI, the students worked in the laboratory and designed research projects. They also kept a blog. Here are a few excerpts.

Harvard students Yanick Mulumba and Charlotte Kreger, and friend
Harvard students Yanick Mulumba and Charlotte Kreger, and friend

Arrival in Gaborone • Charlotte Kreger

Our first week in Botswana has been an adventure (sometimes), surprisingly relaxing (sometimes), and fun (all of the time). Yanick, Melody, and I are living in a beautiful apartment, working in a welcoming environment, and exploring the beautiful city of Gaborone.

It’s “winter” here, which means that the nights get to be around 40 degrees and the afternoons can reach past 70 degrees. I’ve been going for a run almost every day and trying to get lost in a good way in order to orient myself in the city. Unfortunately, the days are short here so I have limited time after work gets out to run long distances. Regardless, it’s fun to run through the city, smile and say, “Dumela” to passersby.

Week One • Melody Guan

Yanick and Charlotte and I began our internships by rotating amongst the diagnostic labs at BHP to learn about the role of each lab in the management of HIV/AIDS and to learn some useful lab techniques. I started off in the DNA/PCR lab, in which blood samples of infants born to HIV-positive mothers were tested for HIV infection.

On the weekend, feeling adventurous and wishing to explore our new surroundings, the three of us climbed Kgale Hill. The hike featured a troop of baboons at the hill’s base, scenic views along the trail, and the thunderous prayers of a large crowd of Pentecostal Christians during our descent.

Week Two • Melody Guan

This week at work we continued our lab rotations. In the viral load lab, there is a really cool machine called the Abbott M200SP that automates almost the entire process of determining the quantity of viral RNA in plasma samples, from pipetting to ensuring that everything is in the right place by scanning barcodes. It even checks that reagents are present in sufficient volumes! BHP is a very high-tech laboratory!

At local restaurants we’ve been able to sample traditional Botswana cuisine with delicious food items like samp (creamy white corn kernels), pap (ground maize porridge), and seswaa, the national dish (boiled, shredded meat). We’ve also developed a craving for magwinya or “fat cakes”, a deep-fried treat sold at the many street food stalls in Gaborone.

Three-Day Holiday • Yanick Mulumba

Dr. Musonda, the Lab Director, invited us to her home and treated us to some Zambian food. Two other colleagues from work and her two daughters were also present. I felt this was a good experience, especially for Melody and Charlotte, to learn more about Botswana and Zambian cultures. Amongst the many discussions was how marriage preparations are generally carried out.

Halfway Point • Charlotte Kreger

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on samples from recently infected patients to sequence them, which means determining the virus’s DNA, base by base. I’m working for Mr. Moyo, one of the lab directors here. He’s looking into the genetic diversity of a section of the viral DNA to eventually genotype and create a phylogeny of the variants of the disease. He’s also looking to find early founder viruses—those which are the initial infectors in a person, which is why using samples from recently infected people is important.

Right nowI’ve been working on samples to sequence them. But unlike sci-fi movies like Gattaca, sequencing doesn’t entail putting a piece of hair or drop of blood into a machine and waiting for it to spit out the pattern of nucleotides. It is a three- to four-day process of various protocols.

For the first weeks, Yanick, two interns, and a BHP employee, Terrence, were working with me. It’s always fun to work with other people. They’re good for reminding you when you’re at risk for contamination or when you’ve accidentally skipped a step in the procedure. Now I’m working on the sequencing alone, which is nice, but I miss all of my assistants!

The lab work is good for acquiring useful lab techniques and understanding, first of all, what it takes to complete a research project, and secondly, what doing all of this means and why it’s important. It’s also good for connecting with the other interns/workers here at BHP and working for a common cause. I never thought I’d be so elated when getting a 100% success rate on my first round of PCR! I can’t wait to continue the work and eventually get enough data to analyze and answer some interesting questions.

You can read the entire blog at Botswana Harvard Summer.