By Sri Gowtham Thakku and Avilash Cramer

This past January, we traveled to South Africa as part of the IAP class HST.434: Evolution of an Epidemic. The class, taught by IMES Professor Bruce Walker and Dr. Howard Heller and offered to MIT undergraduates, examines the medical, scientific, public health and policy responses to a new disease, by focusing on the evolution of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As two graduate students enrolled in HST’s Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) Ph.D. program, our official role in the class was as Teaching Assistants, but we ended up finding ourselves more as students – listening, absorbing and learning.

Leading up to the trip, we had two days of preparatory lectures and an extensive list of readings to complete, which most of us did on our long flights to Durban. While these were helpful in building a foundation of knowledge surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, they were hardly preparation for all our interactions with the people we met — the young women living through the epidemic in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the healthcare providers working to fight it, the researchers searching for a cure — their warmth, friendliness and boundless optimism couldn’t possibly be captured in a lecture or journal article.