Category : PROspective
“I am an HIV researcher”
Until recently, it was unlikely someone you met, or your family at Thanksgiving dinner, would know what epidemiology was and what we do. But even now, it’s still unlikely people will know the breadth of work done by epidemiologists – everything from cardiovascular damage due to pervasive stress, to cancer research, sleep, maternal health, and a wide variety of infectious diseases.
Throughout my career, I have often taken the shortcut of saying, “I am an HIV researcher” although that commonly has to be followed by explanations of not doing bench science. Lately, as I spend much of my time doing COVID-19 work, I am described, and describing myself, more as an infectious disease epidemiologist which harkens back to my first research jobs in graduate school. So, even today, you could say my “specialty” in epidemiology continues to evolve – representing a combination of my personal experiences, my interests, and the context of the world at present. For students and early career epidemiologists, there are a seemingly infinite number of directions to go with your skillset, and deciding which of these avenues fits you best is often more of a journey than a choice.
So, how do we all find our area of interest?
Some students come to Rollins with very targeted goals; I was not one of them. I did not come to graduate school determined to do HIV work, although I was drawn to infectious diseases. Some students come to try out different areas of research and I fall into this category. I took electives in other disease specialties until I could honestly say ID was my thing, and I learned with every one of these courses both new information and methods, and what I did or did not see myself doing my entire career. While you consider which electives to take, make sure to review the Department’s Areas of EPI document on Canvas, which provides some helpful background on many of the common subspecialties within epidemiology and which courses fall into those categories.
When I think about how I decided to specialize in HIV epidemiology, there are really two reasons and two influential people involved in this story. The reasons are timing and opportunity and the people are my uncle and my mentor.
Timing and my uncle – the personal connection:
Going into public health in the 1990s, it felt cliché to be interested in HIV/AIDS and this alone made me not want to pursue this topic. Yet, it was a deeply personal area and one that has informed much of my thoughts about public health since. Students who have taken HIV Epidemiology with me have heard me speak about my Uncle Bill.
I was in high school when he called my mom, his sister, to let her know that his longtime roommate had been diagnosed with AIDS. It was a call that not only told our family that he was sick but also one that told us his roommate was his partner, a relationship that had not been clearly understood in our family for decades. As a kid, I recall watching my family learn to love all of who my uncle was. There was never any doubt that my family loved him, but I still look at that time as a sad realization that he had not been able to share all of who he was with us for so very long. We were fortunate to have more than four years left with him before he, too, died of HIV.
We all have experiences that shape us and even though I was not consciously pursuing the field of HIV epidemiology because of Uncle Bill, the impact his life has had on my career is deep.
Opportunity and my mentor:
When I arrived at Emory for my masters, I began work at the Atlanta VA Medical Center on several infectious disease studies in the Emerging Infectious Disease Program with CDC. I learned a tremendous amount about writing questionnaires, problems with skip patterns, and the willingness of hospitalized patients to participate in studies. I also learned that it can take over 680 cold calls to find a control for a case of Group B Strep and that food borne illnesses are interesting but were not my passion.
Every study I worked on taught me something and brought me in contact with interesting, dedicated, and very smart researchers. One of these investigators, Dr. David Rimland, became my thesis advisor. I still recall the first day I met David although I had no way of knowing the opportunities he would provide for me and the truly remarkable ways he would influence my career. When given the chance to do my thesis work using the HIV cohort he had followed since 1982 at the Atlanta VA, I jumped at the opportunity.
It is important to note that I did take a 13-month detour to work at the American Cancer Society but missed work in the HIV world the entire time I was gone. I still remember making the phone call to David asking if he had a position to work with him again, but this time specifically in HIV research. Thankfully, he said yes and I returned home. To me, home had become the quirky VA hospital, people I admired, a rich set of data, HIV research, and working with my mentor. In the 17 years I worked in the VA HIV clinic, we fought every day to improve lives of those we served in our clinic and all people living with HIV. There is no doubt that the way I approach research and my love for the work I do has been heavily influenced by working with David. I learned, I made mistakes, and I grew all under his supportive mentorship.
I admire our students who come to graduate school with a true vision for their work. I encourage each of you to explore other fields just for a class or two, or even for a guest lecture. There is so much to learn and so many ways to connect specialty fields. And for those who are searching for your passion, it is out there. Speak to faculty about how we found our field of work. Most have a story to share about their journey and how their lens on the world has influenced their work. Most of these stories are about connection; connection to diseases, specialty areas, or important mentors who both guide us and offer their connections to us as we pursue our careers.
Looking back, it seems obvious that losing my uncle to HIV, and watching him combat stigma that was so deeply pervasive during the first years of the epidemic, is why my career took the path that it did. But my journey also needed the influence of a great HIV researcher and mentor to find its true course. As the adage goes: hindsight is 20/20, and the arc of your own story is unlikely to be clear from the outset. However, if you commit to exploring new avenues, seek out mentors, and connect your past experiences to your curiosity, your path in epidemiology will reveal itself.
Featured image from: https://medium.com/wizbuskout/be-directionless-to-find-a-direction-a3c39a73b182