Vignettes by Caroline Park
At the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership Lab (BHP) in Gaborone, Botswana, a handful of research scientists come in from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday, and immerse themselves in their various projects.
Who exactly are these scientists who toil under BHP’s roof? Where do they come from and what do they do in their spare time? To answer these questions, I briefly interviewed a few of our busy young scientists and composed brief vignettes of their lives.
Impeccably dressed from head to toe, when the five-foot-tall Prisca Lesole walks in, you cannot mistake her for anyone else. The smallest one in the lab and with the softest voice, Prisca simply glows.
A recent bride, Prisca received her Master’s degree in bioinformatics and molecular biology from the University of Mauritius in 2012. She arrived at BHP in October 2014 and is currently working on host genetics regarding HIV infection.
Initially, she came to BHP because its “one of the top research labs in the region, if not the whole of Africa. Since it’s affiliated with Harvard School of Public Health, everyone wants to work here!” Looking towards the future, she hopes to help establish a strong bioinformatics base at BHP.
Getting to the BHP is quite a trek for Prisca. The journey involves two separate combis—small, often cramped minibuses that serve as the main form of public transportation in Botswana. She first boards Kgale View Route 2, and later transfers to Broadhurt Route 1, eventually arriving at Princess Marina Hospital campus, where the BHP is located. She makes this 30-minute trip every morning and every evening during the week.
By the time she gets home on most days, its pretty late. If there’s daylight left, she likes to be active. Otherwise, she cooks dinner and finishes up her work. Mostly, nighttime is relaxation time, and she likes to unwind by reading motivational and financial literacy books. A devout Christian, her favorite leisure activity is watching sermons on Miracle TV and Prophetic Channel. Though, she did add with a shy smile, “I like cartoons as well.”
If you hear deep, booming laughter down the hallway, it probably does not belong to Mompati Mogwele. He has more of a sharp and crisp cackle. I would, however, be willing to bet a million (Monopoly) dollars that whoever does own that deep and booming laugh is responding to something Mompati has just said.
Laughter and smiles seem to follow Mompati around more faithfully than his own shadow. In fact, when I am looking for a missing Mompati, I perk up my ears to listen for laughter, not for his voice.
Having arrived at BHP in 2010 with a Bachelors of Science in biology, Mompati expects to register with the University of Botswana by the end of this year to pursue an MPhil in biological sciences.
This beloved jokester is getting hitched as soon as he can sort out his lobolo, which is the traditional dowry that a prospective husband gives to the head of his fiancée’s family. This age-old custom of southern Africa stipulates that the prospective husband gives eight cattle or the monetary equivalent. Mompati currently has 7 cows to his name, and members of his extended family can pitch in for the last cow. That said, Mompati is reluctant to give away all his cows, and so may settle for some type of mixed cattle-and-money lobolo.
Both he and his fiancée hail from Good Hope, a village only an hour away from Gaborone. Though they now live in Gaborone, Mompati claims that when the opportunity presents itself and he can find work at his home village, he will go back there. He still has a house, a cattle post, and a small field in Good Hope. The field can grow maize, watermelon, and beans very well, though at the present moment, it remains unplowed and unused.
When I reminded him that he is a scientist and therefore has no time to farm, Mompati fervently shook his head and exclaimed, “I have time! I have plenty of time… to hire other people who will plow my field and look after my farm!”
Kena Kotokwe rarely sits down. Instead, she spends her time flying from one floor to another, hovering over an ELISA antibody test in the Serology section or pipetting a PCR in the research lab. Her industrious work ethic is paralleled by her quiet modesty, making Kena a delight to work with.
Kena joined BHP in June 2013 while attaining her Bachelors of Science in biology, with a minor in chemistry. When asked why she picked the research path, she responded, “I thought—and still think—that science is fascinating. Also, when I was growing up, there was a lack of science… I just wanted to answer the questions that we were facing, questions that lots of other people didn’t want to answer. And when I discovered research, I thought, ‘What a great deal! I can answer these questions and help my community.’”
This community that she speaks of, Ramokgonani village, has seen its fair share of AIDS. As a young child growing up in the village, Kena could easily pick out who was getting treated for HIV. The antiretroviral medications back then had terrible side effects, like hair loss and wasting. With a national HIV prevalence rate of 25%, it was inevitable that Kena saw and heard a lot about HIV as she grew up.
“Yes, there was stigma,” she said, “but with time, people realized that this is something that is affecting all of our families, so we need to come together and fight this thing.”
One day a few weeks ago, a lime green container magically appeared on top of the tea and coffee counter, shattering the monotony of the lab’s common space. Little did we know then, but the presence of the green container would become a daily phenomenon, accompanied by its little white tag declaring, “P2.50 EACH.”
The culprit? Natasha Moraka, the 23-year-old intern at BHP and, in a recent turn of events, part-time baker.
Natasha’s vanilla-raisin muffins and chocolate scones, sold for the equivalent of 25 cents in the U.S., are very popular among the Batswana scientists. By noon, they are all gone, and the green container is packed away until its reappearance the next morning.
Set to graduate in October, this now-infamous baker finished coursework for her Bachelors of Science this past May. Now she is simply waiting for the University of Botswana to finalize its graduation list.
In the meantime, she has applied for the National Internship Program, which was recently instituted by the government in an attempt to reduce the soaring unemployment rate in Botswana. Currently, about one in four Botswana adults are unemployed. If Natasha gets into the two-year internship program, she hopes to continue working at BHP and pursue an MPhil next year. Beyond that, she is still deciding whether she wants to become a scientist or a doctor.
When I asked her what prompted the extended bake sale, she smiled and responded, “I was just trying to see if I have entrepreneur skills.”
So then, is she making a profit? “Not that I know of right now!”
It is a Botswana tradition to have a totem, which is an object or animal that symbolizes your ancestry. The totem is supposed to remind you of your roots and the origins of life.
Motswedi Anderson’s totem is the zebra, which is also her favorite animal. Motswedi was one of the many new arrivals in 2005 who came to work with the Ministry of Health on its Sentinel Surveillance project. Sentinel was designed to check the prevalence of various diseases among pregnant women enrolled in the national program.
With Sentinel, Motswedi started in the Serology section at BHP, but eventually spent most of her time at the PBMC (peripheral blood mononuclear cells) section. In 2013, she moved up to the research lab. “I came here because I thought it was time to upgrade myself. I came for my Masters.”
But she is not nearly done with the upgrades. While currently pursuing an MPhil at the University of Botswana, she is looking to extend that Masters program into a PhD program in biological sciences. Her focus at the moment is hepatitis B and HIV co-infection. It is a field of study that captivates her and motivates her to keep researching.
“When you’re working on questions that are relevant to the city, to the nation, to the world…you’re doing something big. You can actually change something that makes a difference in the world.”
Caroline Park is a rising junior at Harvard, majoring in Human Development and Regenerative Biology. She is spending the summer of 2015 conducting research at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP).