After I graduated from Middlebury. I was put by chance into a public health program in Benin in West Africa. I was seconded to UNICEF, and they gave me a motorcycle and taught me how to do disease surveillance. And I've been doing the same thing ever since.
When I graduated from Johns Hopkins [where she earned her Ph.D.], I was offered a job at the National Institutes of Health in a program called the Global Network for Women and Children's Health Research. When they offered me the job, they said, 'We have to warn you that we're going to need you to set up clinical sites in some really hard places, and one of them is Congo.' Of course, they expected me to run out the door screaming. [The Second Congo War, which began in 1998 and officially ended in 2003, claimed more than 5 million lives. In some parts of the country, fighting continues to this day.] But I was like, 'OK, I'm in, how do I start?' Congo was a place I had been dreaming about my whole life. It's the best and the worst of Africa, all rolled up into one.
And when you're there, you are the embodiment of the phrase, "You're not from around here." So how do you get things done?
When I started working in DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], I already understood a lot about the culture and political history, and I spoke French [widely spoken in the country], and it was very easy for me to learn Lingala, the most commonly spoken language. So I could communicate with people and work with them. And I've been very concerned about capacity building in DRC and making sure the Congolese are trained, getting people into doctoral programs, bringing equipment and infrastructure to DRC.
At the end of the day, the goal of what we do is to empower them to take control of their own health agenda. I think they realize I mean what I say, and I don't promise what I can't deliver — and I always put the Congolese first.
In general, three or four times a year for visits that are anywhere from two to six weeks long.
What do you do on a typical trip?
If it's a short trip, I spend a lot of time in Kinshasa [the capital and largest city] where I have a lab and an office, supervising activities, working up new studies, analyzing data, making sure the administration is happening appropriately and negotiating agreements with other NGOs or Congolese entities and ministries. But often, we'll spend time in our field site, which is literally right in the middle of Congo. We have a clinical research center with trucks and motorcycles, satellite phones, etc. The only way you can get there is by chartering a plane. No other way in or out.
Is it true that villagers participating in one of your studies thought you were stealing their blood for white Europeans to stay young?
There was one study in which we took blood from every human being over the age of 1 — 4,000 people in 15 villages. And they legitimately wondered what we were doing with their blood. These were very remote villages. It's easy for rumors to get started and that was one of them. I said, "I've aged at least 15 years doing this study so if that were the case, I would be feeling a lot better than I do right now."
And what do you typically do out in the field?
I'll go out with my staff and do disease surveillance and case investigations and collect samples. We're also doing a lot of work now looking at cross-species transmission of disease, from animals to people, so we are doing a lot of sampling of bush meat — monkeys, squirrels, rodents, bats, all the different animals that are their main sources of food.
What was your most satisfying moment working in Congo?
There are so many of them. I think what I am most proud of in general is getting my former lab manager in Congo, Neville Kisalu, into the doctoral program at the Department of Microbiology here at UCLA. He's in his fourth year and he's doing very well. He was able to bring his five children and his wife here.
Most unsatisfying moment?
Having to chase after funding all the time. People look at the work that I do — looking for new viruses, crossing species from animals to humans, surveillance — and they think of it as needle-in-a-haystack work. It's very easy to get funding to analyze samples. But not to actually collect the samples. They don't magically appear in a place like DRC where there are no roads, no communication, and no infrastructure. I've been looking for these diseases in the places where it's most difficult to look for them — places where you have to spend days walking, or riding motorcycles, or taking canoes.
If most people are going to traditional healers and informal health providers, then those are the people you need to focus on, but there is no formal structure to reach them. You have to work in the communities, figure out what their value systems are, how to motivate them to report things, so that to me are the most challenging and interesting things. Coming up with innovative ways to do disease surveillance is important work. It's kind of the basis for epidemiology.