MIT Students Gain Global Perspective on the HIV Epidemic

MIT Students Gain Global Perspective on the HIV Epidemic

Feb 23

From January 19th to 29th, 2018, MIT undergraduates traveled to Durban, South Africa, to study the evolution of the AIDS epidemic. The class, a Health Sciences and Technology (HST) course taught by Dr. Bruce Walker (Ragon Institute) and Dr. Howard Heller (MIT Medical), is in its second year, and aims to examine the AIDS epidemic from a global perspective both in and out of the classroom. Taking into consideration the medical, scientific, public health, and policy responses to the disease from its discovery until the present, Drs. Walker and Heller provide a historical context for the AIDS outbreak before detailing the immune defense mechanisms affected by the disease, the rational development of drugs, activist responses, and the challenge of developing an HIV vaccine. “The course brings students with different interests and backgrounds together,” said Dr. Heller. “They learn about all of the aspects of the HIV epidemic, and then collaborate on projects to identify problems and develop solutions. This kind of engagement is yet another step toward MIT’s goal of building a better world.”


Students who took this course during their Independent Activities Period (IAP) attended morning lectures before departing for various outings to supplement the materials learned in class. They learned from traditional South African healers, attended an educational film screening in a local theater, and toured several research sites and hospitals. Participants in the course also visited the FRESH (Females Rising through Education, Support, and Health) clinic, where blood samples are regularly collected and analyzed from young women at risk for infection while they are provided with an intensive empowerment, life-skills, and job readiness curriculum. “One of my fondest memories of the course was spending time at the FRESH clinic,” said MIT department of Electrical Engineering student Graham R. Davis. “We met women who were the same age as many of us. Hearing the women discuss the challenges they face every day trying to combat dangerous social pressures and learning about the ways in which the FRESH clinic provided them with much-needed skills and hope really put the disease in perspective for me.”


After such an interactive learning experience, it’s no wonder that students are eager to apply their new knowledge. Davis added, “not only did I have the opportunity to learn about a remarkable disease, but I also met amazing people with first-hand experience who have dedicated themselves to combating HIV and AIDS. The ability to learn about a concept in lectures and then drive to a local hospital, research center, clinic, or village and see the fight in action was a vital part of the class. The course opened my eyes to a serious problem that I had always heard about, but had never been directly exposed to. Overall, I came away from this week with greater awareness and renewed motivation to make an impact on the world.”