How do AIDS and poverty interact?
Gettysburg College sophomore Atlang Mompe and economics Prof. Eileen Stillwaggon sought answers in Botswana this past summer. Theirs was one of several student-faculty collaborative research projects supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.
“I have a passion to help my nation with this problem,” said Mompe, a citizen of Botswana.
Behavior alone cannot explain HIV infection rates that are up to 25 times higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in wealthy nations, said Stillwaggon, especially when North Americans and Europeans exhibit higher rates of most risky sexual behaviors.
“For nearly ten years now, I’ve been looking at the HIV epidemic as we would at any other infectious disease,” said Stillwaggon, author of AIDS and the Ecology of Poverty (Oxford University Press, USA, 2006). “Why do poor people have higher rates of every disease? They live with bad water, poor housing, poor medical care, and no sanitation systems. In some areas, 100 percent of children are carrying parasitic worms. That has to have an effect on the immune system. And a person with malaria can have ten times the viral load of HIV in their blood than someone without it. The medical literature indicates that illnesses like these increase the transmission of AIDS by making an HIV-negative person more vulnerable and an HIV-infected person more contagious.”
Botswana was an excellent site for research because of its long commitment to providing anti-retroviral drugs to all who need them and the resulting wealth of information from some 850 medical facilities across the nation.
Mompe played a crucial role in obtaining the data, Stillwaggon said. The political science major initiated contact with and earned the confidence of high health ministry officials, who made sure that the precious computer discs made it into her hands. The process took time, but Stillwaggon said Mompe made the most of it by working as an intern with the Botswana/Harvard Partnerships, a program of the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative for HIV Research and Education.
The data await final analysis, but Stillwaggon said the experience provided Mompe with “an excellent education in the real world of research” and allowed her to make valuable connections in what may be her career field. “She is dedicated to helping to solve problems in her country,” Stillwaggon said. “The Mellon Foundation couldn’t have put its money to better use.”
“This project was a stepping stone for me,” said Mompe, who hopes to become a diplomat. “I made great connections for the future and I got to do something worthwhile for my country.” Mompe, who was active in raising AIDS awareness in high school, said she really connected with Stillwaggon last year in her first-year seminar “Understanding AIDS.” Being able to expand that connection into real research in her homeland “is one of the highlights of my Gettysburg experience so far,” Mompe said. “It was two worlds merging together.”
The $50,000 New Presidents Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation expanded collaborative summer research opportunities for students and faculty both this year and last. “An integrated and strong multidisciplinary student-faculty research program is part of the 'culture of engagement' that I identified in my Vision of the Future of Gettysburg College,” President Katherine Haley Will said.
Mompe and Stillwaggon's project was also partially underwritten by a generous gift in support of travel for academic purposes by 1979 Gettysburg College graduate Andrew Parker.
• In another Mellon-funded project this past summer, mathematics and computer science major Megan Knauss became the first person to compute the best possible end-game strategies for an ancient game called “dudo,” which mixes bluffing and dice and reaches back to the Incan empire. “This is a significant research accomplishment for an undergraduate, and worth celebrating,” said computer science Prof. Todd Neller, with whom the junior from Kennett Square, Pa., worked closely.
• Also funded by the Mellon grant was research in Ireland by sociology and anthropology Prof. Deborah Rapuano and Jessica Fernandez, a senior sociology major from Albany, N.Y. They spent 30 days in County Clare interviewing tourists and tourism industry workers to compare the two groups’ conceptions of what it means to be Irish. For example, Fernandez said, tourist audiences tend to sit passively and expect to be entertained by pub musicians, while local residents are more likely to sing along and otherwise interact. Rapuano and Fernandez are preparing a paper on their findings for publication.
Other Mellon-funded topics and researchers included:
• George W. Bush’s use of presidential signing statements, senior political science major William Lamb and political science Prof. Shirley Anne Warshaw
• AIDS and HIV among the elderly, senior sociology and history major Stephanie Bonnes and sociology and anthropology Prof. Voon Chin Phua
• The history of the Church of the Gesu in Philadelphia, junior history major Leo Vaccaro and history Prof. Magdalena Sanchez
By Jim Hale
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