Fighting HIV through Equality
By Steve Neumann
From Nairobi to Reading to Johannesburg, Heena Brahmbhatt’s impressive career in public health research began with advice from an Albright faculty member.
When Heena Brahmbhatt ’93 left Kenya at 16 years of age to complete her secondary education in the United Kingdom, she knew she wanted to have a career in the medical field after graduation. And since her father had worked for the U.S. government for 40 years, she felt most comfortable looking for a school in the states that was known for having a good science program, a good portion of students graduating and, of course, the best financial aid package. She found all of that in Albright College.
That decision worked out well because today Brahmbhatt is a senior researcher at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, working on HIV prevention in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The new studies I’m designing now are looking at how you can reduce infections during pregnancy, and improve maternal and infant health outcomes,” she says.
Brahmbhatt has made leading contributions to the field of prevention of HIV transmission from mothers to children in Uganda, specifically with regard to the role of co-infection with malaria that was part of her doctoral thesis. That work made it into the prestigious scientific journals of Science and The Lancet, and was highlighted by several news broadcasters in 2003, including BBC.
Learning to Speak Up
Brahmbhatt’s experiences at Albright have resonated throughout her academic and professional career. As just one example, she vividly recalls the advice she received from retired history professor Kathleen Greenfield.
“I still remember her sitting me down and saying, ‘You know, you come from a culture where you don’t ask questions, you don’t let teachers get to know you,’” Brahmbhatt says, “and you need to make the effort to get people to know you and speak up.’”
That advice would serve her well when she was accepted into the doctorate in medicine program at Johns Hopkins University after graduating from Albright with a degree in biochemistry. However, the elation of taking the first step in the direction of her dream was immediately overshadowed by the fact that the acceptance into the doctoral program came with the condition that her parents deposit a hefty sum into an escrow account. The university at the time deemed it a risk to accept international students without a guarantee of four years’ worth of tuition.
“My parents didn’t have that kind of money,” she says, “and I thought my life was over. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
So Brahmbhatt decided to look into the two-year master of public health instead, even though the application deadline had passed.
“I marched into the admissions office and said to them, ‘Listen, I know your admissions were over in February and it’s May, but I’m really keen on exploring the MPH,’” Brahmbhatt says. “I think the admissions officer was a bit blown away that I had the audacity to do something like that.”
Brahmbhatt’s assertiveness paid off, because the admissions officer agreed to submit Brahmbhatt’s application, and she was subsequently accepted.
“I never looked back,” she says. “I abandoned the idea of medical school and went on to do my Ph.D. in public health.”
Immediately after finishing her doctorate, Brahmbhatt was recruited to join the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins, where she began her research on HIV prevention in children, adolescents and mothers in countries most affected by the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
New Ideas to Combat Old Problems
Now, after nearly 20 years of research into infectious disease and improving child health outcomes, Brahmbhatt finds herself interested in the related area of how to improve education in the developing world.
“The quality of education in the public schools here and in many parts of the developing world is shockingly poor,” she says. “If you don’t have children getting the quality educational foundation, you will really see the impact of that in terms of health, the economy and crime, because you have a whole generation of children that do not do well enough to level up in university, or even have jobs.”
As a result, Brahmbhatt has started collaborating with local schools in an effort to determine what kinds of interventions are feasible. One of the things she’s exploring is the use of educational technology in an after school program that will hopefully make an impact on pregnancy rates and high risk behaviors, and increase the number of young people doing well enough to end up in university — the driving factor behind Brahmbhatt’s own successful academic and professional career.
“I left Africa when I was 16,” she says. “Growing up in that environment, going to public school in Kenya, where I had friends from various social economic statuses, I was very aware how privileged I was just to be able to go to school and have food on the table.”
“So from a young age,” Brahmbhatt continues, “it was very important to me that every child should have equal access to food, nutrition and education opportunities. That shouldn’t be something that needs to be assigned to an economic privilege.”