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Microbicide Research Leads Student to South Africa

Oct 8, 2009

With support from the Pacific Fund, Emily Sheldon '10 traveled to South Africa this summer to present her research on microbicide clinical trials at the South African Clinical Research Association's 3rd Annual Research Conference. She was the only student invited to speak at the conference, and the only presenter from outside South Africa.

Accompanying her on the trip was Pacific graduate Graham Howes '08, a Music Management major and Film minor, who filmed their experiences so they could create a documentary from visits with local residents, researchers and community organizers. They planned to focus on HIV prevention in the documentary, but the emphasis has shifted to communicating the beauty and compassion they saw in the people of South Africa.

"When you hear about Soweto, all you hear about is the extreme poverty, the soaring rates of HIV, and crime. But what I discovered was something altogether different," said Emily. "I have never met a friendlier group of people. They greet everyone they encounter as they walk down the street, and they will go out of their way to help you out. I felt such a warm sense of community unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life."

Emily, who is double majoring in Political Science and Gender Studies, has had a long-time interest in sexual health and reproductive issues, and she developed a strong interest in microbicides after learning how they may play a role in slowing the spread of HIV. Her subsequent research on the topic resulted in a 30-page research paper that examines the ethical issues involved in testing microbicides on humans.

A nationally ranked debater on the Pacific Speech and Debate Society, Emily said the training she received through speech and debate fully prepared her for conducting the research that went into her paper.

Microbicides have been in development for a couple of decades; they have been formulated as a colorless, odorless, tasteless gel or cream used to prevent HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. The goal of creating a safe and cost-effective microbicide is to empower women who may not have the option of using a condom or other forms of STD prevention with their partners.

While traveling to various cities in South Africa, Emily met with others involved in microbicide development, such as Professor Gita Ramjee—one of the foremost experts on microbicides in South Africa—who helps coordinate clinical trials. She also met with people from community programs, such as the Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre, a school for disabled students started by a woman who lost her young son to cerebral palsy, and Chatsworth Hospice, where she saw first-hand the tragedy of those afflicted with HIV.

Emily and Graham plan to screen their documentary on campus in December and submit it to film festivals in the spring. Emily also hopes to win a Fulbright scholarship and return to South Africa to continue her research.

Visit External website link Emily's blog to learn more about her experiences in South Africa.

Emily Sheldon (middle) with Asanda (age 5) and Zama (age 23), locals of Soweto. Zama is a university student and an employee at Lebo's Soweto Backpackers, the hostel where Emily and Graham stayed in Soweto.

Emily Sheldon (middle) with Asanda (age 5) and Zama (age 23), locals of Soweto. Zama is a university student and an employee at Lebo's Soweto Backpackers, the hostel where Emily and Graham stayed in Soweto.

In Umlazi, a township outside of Durban: Graham with a new friend who is part of a group that trains local teenagers to use hip hop and film to channel their ideas and support themselves.

In Umlazi, a township outside of Durban: Graham with a new friend who is part of a group that trains local teenagers to use hip hop and film to channel their ideas and support themselves.

Playing with local children at a park in Soweto that was created through donations by locals and visitors, with the direction and support of Lebo's Soweto Backpackers.

Playing with local children at a park in Soweto that was created through donations by locals and visitors, with the direction and support of Lebo's Soweto Backpackers.

Emily talking with local children about their day at school.

Emily talking with local children about their day at school.

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