When people ask where we go to work, its easiest to just name the company and say a few words about our particular contribution there. It's easy to lose track of the impact our jobs can have on others, especially when we do the same thing day in and day out. I work in an AIDS vaccine research lab, and while the big picture is to help eradicate a deadly disease in humans, our daily tasks do not include 'saving the world'. The research that takes place at our lab is basic in a sense, since we are simply trying to better understand HIV and it's simian (monkey) equivalent, SIV. The hope is that if we understand how the virus works, we can use this knowledge to create an effective vaccine. So while it's a good conversation starter to say where I work, I often lose track of the big picture and why it is important for all of us to continue doing what we do.
But when we have face time with individuals infected with the virus who are fighting the disease and the side-effects of potent medications, it serves as a strong reminder that our research is incredibly important. I do not personally know anyone with HIV, and so I often feel very disconnected from the work I do. Last week, our lab met with a local Madison AIDS activist, Bob Bowers, who has been HIV-positive for over 25 years. We were excited to meet with him and hear his story, and likewise Bob was excited to see our facility and better understand the kind of research we do; especially where we stand with developing a vaccine. Bob told us his story, how he became infected with the virus at age 21, and how he went from a life of drugs and partying to travelling around the country educating people on HIV and AIDS. Bob is a very unique man; covered in tattoos and holding nothing back, he tells his story in such a way that elementary school children and adults alike are captivated by his discussions. His message is not "Don't Do Drugs" or "Don't Have Sex", it's live your life and have fun but be careful. Bob also works hard to fight the stereotypes associates with HIV, including sexuality, lifestyle choices, and taboos about sex. His nickname is One Tough Pirate, and his website is www.onetoughpirate.com. If you get a chance, check it out.
I really enjoyed meeting with Bob, and it was a great chance for him to better understand the research that we do on the virus that has changed his life. It was a great experience, and I wouldn't miss another chance to hear him speak.