An Outbreak of inspiration

After one of our Professors, Sanushka Naidoo, challenged us to think about what it is that inspires us and what we aspire to be, I stumbled onto an opinion piece titled, “Why Universities need to tell better stories.” You might be wondering what aspiration and communication have to do with one another and I hope to make that clear by the end of this blog.

Like many of my fellow scientists, I was inspired to do science. The inspiration came not from a wonderful biology teacher or a visit to a local lab but rather from a movie called “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. I was ten at the time (I know, where were my parents?) and after watching “Outbreak” five or six times, I decided I wanted to be just like the scientists I had seen on TV, working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I was going to rid the world of HIV and Ebola.


This kept me going for years! After I completed my undergraduate degree in microbiology, I applied for an Honours hoping to get a project with a Professor of virology, someone who studies viruses. Unfortunately, at that time they were only accepting female students. I then had to change my focus and ended up, thankfully, working on plant pathogens instead. You see, shortly after I started my Honours, I learned that I couldn’t handle blood all that well, and seeing that Ebola is a haemorrhagic disease that makes one bleed (a lot), I was lucky to have made the switch. Nine years later, I am a PhD candidate still working with plant pathogens and I haven’t looked back since.

While “Outbreak” isn’t strictly science communication, it did do a lot to inform me about what some viruses can do, how they spread and the risks they pose; even if it was a little “Hollywood.” Yes, it was a work of fiction shot in a studio in the United States but some of the images portrayed in the film reminded me of some of the photographs that captured the tragedy of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. The release of “Outbreak” at the time of the Zaire outbreak popularized our concerns about a deadly virus spreading and so also created awareness about these deadly Ebola-like viruses. Remember this happened at a time when social media did not exist. If you didn’t learn about the outbreak from the TV, radio or newspaper, then the cinema was going to show it to you.

My work may seem less exciting to some, especially when you’re standing in a conversation with someone who works on cancer therapies or has found new ways to harness energy from the sun, but I have some wonderful stories waiting to be told. So do many others. Much of the world’s research happens at institutions of higher learning, by the researchers and students who work there. They research everything from HIV and evolution to cyber security and politics.

At the University of Pretoria, they have recently started something called “Research Matters.” This is one way of showcasing some of the most relevant research happening in South Africa, on its campuses. With the help of social media, the university is trying to generate a larger audience to share these stories with. While this is a start for research communication at our university, I often wondered if it shouldn’t be us, the scientists, getting ourselves and our work out there to the people who fund it and benefit from it.

There are journalists, or science journalists, for that. Yes, there are, and they have a role to play in communicating science but I think there are other ways for us to share our science too. Beyond communicating with the scientific community through scientific papers, posters and talks I have learned to get in touch with a broader audience about my work and other topics using my drawings, cartoons, creative pieces and even blogs. If I had the budget and the time, I think I would even make a film about it.

I have been told that I do not fit the typical scientist mold but I doubt anyone would be happy fitting a mold. We are all unique. Just because we are scientists doesn’t mean that we are only good at science. Some of my colleagues also sing, dance, rap, act, write, summarize talks in three minutes or less and, believe it or not, do it well; sometimes better than the science bit. Using these and other talents in innovative ways can create unique avenues for us to share our research and communicate these stories.

During my PhD, I really started to see what being a scientist was like. After struggling to communicate with friends and family about my work, I realized that I was like Motaba, the virus in “Outbreak.” The scientists “got me” but no one in the general public wanted me. If I didn’t evolve my way of thinking, my work would “infect” just a few and that’s when it clicked, I need an outbreak. If we are to share the wonderfully infectious world of science, we are going to need to be more infective!

Every person mistakes the limits of their field of vision for the limits of the world

This July, Durban played host to their second International AIDS conference. This is the biggest and most publicised of the HIV conferences, with the likes of Elton John and Prince Harry showing up to support the cause. This meeting is not really recognised for its pure scientific nature, but is regarded in our lab as something everyone should attend at least once. The goal of the meeting is really to bring social issues to the fore: interventions, activism and policy to improve the lives of those affected. Ultimately for basic scientists, it’s about gaining a wider perspective about the work we do, the impact we make and to motivate us to work harder to lighten the burden South Africa has borne for so many years. But the world of activism, especially celebrity activism, is also a world that could learn from science.

Charlize Theron spoke at the conference saying several things that upset me. The media raved about her speech saying she certainly didn’t sugarcoat anything – as if we don’t know how bad the epidemic is already. I think one of the things that upset me most was this, “The real reason we haven’t beaten the epidemic boils down to one simple fact: We value some lives more than others.” I do not deny that this is a very real issue in the world today; but I truly don’t agree that this is why we haven’t beaten the epidemic. It is easy to get swept up in this statement and feel some guilt as a privileged and fairly happy PhD student who lives life with a clean bill of health (apart from sleep deprivation), but I am worried that a statement like this really works against scientists.

There are legitimate and horrifying biological challenges that we face with this formidable foe. HIV adapts so rapidly our immune systems can’t keep up. About 20% of people develop amazing antibodies that can target 90% of the circulating virus but because this only happens 3 years after infection, this doesn’t help the person at all. We have had 6 HIV vaccine trials, none of which have done any better than 31% protection. The virus integrates into the person’s DNA, which makes a complete cure very difficult. We have cured one man by completely irradiating him twice and nearly killing him and we have thought we cured one baby by giving it ARVs in the first hours of its life (it has since rebounded), with little knowledge about how it will affect it over life. Please understand that the dearth of progress is not for lack of trying or because scientists are secretly plotting against adolescent women.

We simply have not figured it out yet.  Even with incredible education, support and dedication by some truly wonderful people in this country, there continues to be a barrage of infections. While social behaviours and injustices definitely help spread the disease, the ONLY thing that will stop it is a vaccine or a cure. It sounds noble to try and reinvent social interactions (a goal that must be pursued in our lifetime) but this is not what brings about a real-world cure to a horrible disease. Polio swept the world several times throughout history. Do you know when they stopped it? When they found a vaccine! (Read about other diseases defeated by vaccines here.)

The second thing that bothered me in Charlize’s talk, “I know this because AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for women’s bodies, for gay bodies, for youth or for the poor. It doesn’t single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, or the abused.” This isn’t true: the disease does discriminate. Women are biologically more likely than men to contract the disease (read this link for an in-depth analysis and click here for a simplified version), and routes of transmission make gay men in particular vulnerable to infection. I understand what she is trying to say, but to a scientist these statements are incorrect and are once again, making the point that AIDS is only a social disease. People will never perceive themselves to be in a socially-constructed high-risk category. Many of the people I know own cars that they drive every day (a truly high-risk activity!) and not one of them wears a crash helmet.

Charlize later went on to say that we “have all the tools to end HIV.” And we don’t. The fact is education and empowerment doesn’t work completely. We need an intervention that people will not have to think about. How seriously do you worry about Pertussis every day or dying from Mumps? Everyone has access to these vaccines and that is what we need to do for AIDS. I agree completely with Baron Peter Piot (a researcher from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) when he spoke at the same conference, “We need to stop saying that we have the tools to end the HIV and AIDs epidemic, until we have a cure or a vaccine- then we can say that.”

I wouldn’t want any young person to listen to Charlize Theron’s speech and assume that there is any lack of urgency in the scientific field because the disease is not prevalent in the white upper class. We are facing a terrible enemy and while we know a lot about it, it keeps coming up with clever ways to evade our advances. The world could always do with improvement. Young girls should think they are better than their relationships and can go on to live an HIV-free life. I applaud people trying to change this. Ultimately though, scientists are dedicated to making a vaccine for everyone. It, much like ARVs, will shape the lives of people much more quickly than changing social perceptions can. It would be easier if we could just give an injection that would bridge the social divide, but then again, I am a scientist looking out of scientist goggles, with potentially limited eyesight.