Eight Harvard students travel to KZN for a unique HIV research internship

Eight Harvard students travel to KZN for a unique HIV research internship

Jul 01

Some of the world’s brightest young health minds will be working under the supervision of senior HIV scientists to gain insight into combating this global epidemic.

KWAZULU-NATAL, South Africa — Eight students from Harvard University are currently in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) for an intensive internship program to learn about the important HIV prevention and cure research underway in South Africa. The five women and three men participating in the program arrived in the province in June. For all eight Harvard undergrads, it’s their first trip to South Africa.


Drawn by the opportunity to engage in global health research, the eight internship finalists were selected by a committee that included faculty from the Ragon Institute and senior HIV scientists from the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) and HIV Pathogenesis Programme (HPP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine.


Six of the eight internship finalists will spend the next two months in the Durban area, at either the Females Rising Through Education, Support and Health (FRESH) clinical research site in Umlazi’s W Section, or one of the research laboratories, AHRI or HPP. FRESH is a unique clinical study that combines HIV cure research with an empowerment program for young women in Umlazi, including computer and job skills training. The FRESH project is the result of a collaboration between researchers from the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


Two interns will be based at Edendale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg where they will work with ITEACH (Integration of TB in Education and Care of HIV), an NGO that is a longstanding partner of the KZN Department of Health and focused on improving TB and HIV care in under-resourced communities.


Dr. Krista Dong of the Ragon Institute, and the Clinical Director of the FRESH study, explains that the students will be paired with local doctoral and post-doctoral candidates who are engaging in cutting edge HIV-research with leaders in the field. “We loved the idea of bringing Harvard students over to work side-by-side with their South African peers. Having their first exposure to research here in KZN, at the center of the epidemic, will shape the way they look at healthcare and the kind of leaders they will become in the future,” says Dr. Dong. “A really important component of the internship is that there’s an exchange of knowledge and of experience that goes back and forth and that is cross-cultural.”


“This internship will give me a chance to participate in HIV research with people who are passionate about developing a cure,” says Mazuba Siamatu, a second-year Zambian student at Harvard.


Nellie Ide, a third-year Harvard student from Minnesota, adds that she finds the internship unique since the projects she will be involved in will have a real impact on the FRESH program and the future of HIV research. “It is very exciting because I am able to learn many new skills and experience personal growth, while also making a positive impact on people’s lives,” she says.


“I believe it will be a transformative experience, conducting research at the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic under the supervision of scientists who share the same passion towards alleviating the suffering caused by the epidemic as I do,” adds Siamatu.


Although this is the first year of the internship program, Dr. Dong says she and other stakeholders would like to see it continue for years to come, and to become a core part of the longstanding collaboration between the Ragon Institute and South African researchers in KwaZulu-Natal.


Photo information: Six of the Harvard students attended a traditional event (Umembeso) on their first weekend in South Africa. Left to right: Mazuba Siamatu, Joanne Hokayem, Nellie Ide, Jasmyne McCoy, Ashley Watts, and Catherine Gallori. Photo credit: K Dong. 


Ragon Institute Media contact: Corrie Martin, cmartin45@mgh.harvard.edu, 857-268-7074