A lot goes on behind the scenes of a study far before even the first data point is collected. Lab techniques are perfected, questionnaires are developed, permission from community stakeholders is obtained, and sometimes an entire platter of cheetos is reluctantly but politely consumed. These were some of the goals I achieved this summer (winter) while working on a Malaria research study in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Piper, a fellow UVA student, and I worked together with Mukhethwa, a microbiology PhD candidate at the University of Venda, to prepare a study determining the prevalence and genetic characterization of Malaria in the Ha-Lambani region.
Working on the preliminary stages of a research project allowed me to understand the realities and logistics of implementing studies in low resource settings. Many moving parts are involved during this important stage, from university ethics committees to village chiefs and from local clinics to major hospitals. No two days were the same, as our team juggled various aspects of laying groundwork for our study. Some days were spent driving around to local clinics and collecting informational pamphlets on Malaria while others comprised of many hours in the lab hood, perfecting our DNA extraction from dried blood spot protocol. Other days were spent entering data from the Lambani clinic or meeting with Village chiefs to explain the study. One particular morning found us in the head chief of Lambani’s living room where we spent what seemed like hours chatting with his family while continuously being encouraged to eat more and more of the endless cheeto platter they had graciously prepared for us. The great diversity of goals and the challenges that came with them made me more patient, flexible, and resourceful. Resilience and determination are key whether you are facing difficulties in the lab or a ginormous platter of cheetos.
“I will always cherish the lifelong friendships formed with the incredible people I met in South Africa. Despite vastly different cultures and backgrounds, similarities always trump differences. Connections like these serve as a reminder that humanity is the greatest common denominator.”
What really made my experiences in South Africa as rich and beautiful as they were was the many amazing people I connected with. Most mornings would start with a simplistic but heartfelt Tshivenda conversation with Mama Mavis, one of the employees at Vevisa lodge. She often walked me around to other employees, holding my hand and laughing. I later found out she thought I resembled another employee’s daughter, justifying my frequent tours around Vevisa. Then we would head to the lab at Univen, where Piper and I would share stories and joke around with the many intelligent, witty, and incredibly kind members of the HIV/AIDS and Global Health lab. The lab even threw us a surprise party on our last day! In the evenings we went to practice with the Univen volleyball team, who became our second family. They showed us how to have a Braai, a traditional South African barbeque, and taught us how to cook many traditional dishes including pap, a staple food made of maize meal, and mopane worms. We all got Univen Volleyball club jackets to remember the time we spent together. I will always cherish the lifelong friendships formed with the incredible people I met in South Africa. Despite vastly different cultures and backgrounds, similarities always trump differences. Connections like these serve as a reminder that humanity is the greatest common denominator.