Traveling with Purpose
Biologist spends summer vacation volunteering in India
Pamela Bjorkman has been studying HIV at Caltech since 2005. In the lab, she has made significant gains in the fight against the virus, developing antibodies that neutralize most strains. But years spent at the bench were beginning to make her feel disconnected from the possible impact of her work. So this summer she visited India, spending time with HIV-positive women and others who are at risk.
"What I wanted to do was see the real side of HIV, where it affects people," says Bjorkman, the Max Delbrück Professor of Biology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "We work in the lab where we have no contact with HIV-infected people—the human impact of the disease is very removed from what we think about in our work."
This was not her first trip to the nation of over 1.2 billion people, where nearly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty. She first visited in 1985 and returned with her teenage daughter in 2008 to work at an orphanage in the Jaipur area called Udayan. The home for children is part of an umbrella organization called Vatsalya that also runs an HIV-education program for female sex workers, among other projects aimed at empowering women and teaching street children vocational skills.
"The orphanage is really incredible," says Bjorkman, whose daughter accompanied her on her most recent trip as well. "There are an estimated 18 million children living on the street in India—a lot who are not actually orphans, but on the street anyway. The organization takes in as many children as it can—around 60—and those kids are never adopted. When they come to the orphanage, the group there becomes their family."
The mission of the organization—founded in 1995 by Jaimala and Hitesh Gupta, both of whom have backgrounds in public health—is to "provide a caring environment where our disadvantaged and vulnerable people can develop their capabilities with dignity." The orphanage is a nearly self-sufficient compound that includes a school, a farm, a garden, and dormitories. They even have a psychologist who visits with the children, many of whom suffered abuse at very young ages.
"It's really an amazing place," says Bjorkman. "Here these kids are, all living with the most horrible back stories, and they are full of joy and respectful and helpful. It makes you realize how incredibly privileged we are here in Pasadena and that we take a lot for granted."
Bjorkman and her daughter stayed at Udayan for two weeks each time they visited, helping to teach the children English and math, participating in art and dance projects, and helping with gardening and cooking. This summer, Bjorkman also traveled to Ajmer, where the group's HIV-education program is located. There, she met with women struggling with the stigma of HIV, particularly because they rely on sex work to support their children and send them to private school; public schools in many impoverished areas of India are notoriously bad.
"The organization identifies women in the community who are sex workers and are interested in learning some other trade, or who need help because of HIV infection," she explains. "The terrible thing is that when they find out they are HIV infected, many of the women start working more because their futures are more uncertain. Plus, they hesitate to take medication because if anyone finds out that they are positive, they will lose customers."
The organization provides counseling, runs a female condom education program, offers training classes for those wanting to become proficient at another job, and works to get HIV-positive women on antiretroviral medications. While visiting with the women, Bjorkman talked with them about how the virus works and why it's so tough to treat once it's in the body.
"This is the reason that I'm doing the HIV research," she says. "It's not to get our own papers out first, it's to actually do something that might make a difference. Meeting the women put a lot of the competition and the unpleasantness associated with the rat race of science into perspective."
Bjorkman plans to return to India, but in the meantime she's doing all she can to raise awareness for Vatsalya and their various projects. Like any nonprofit, the organization could use monetary donations, but she hopes that her story inspires others at Caltech to donate their time. Anyone, she says, can volunteer through Vatsalya and receive room, board, and meals at the orphanage for a nominal daily donation.
"Caltech undergrad and grad students don't necessarily have that much money, but they may have time and this would be an amazing way to get to know another culture," she says. "These people are really doing a great job—both with the orphanage and with the HIV program that I had direct experience with. Once you see the way it works, it's really inspiring."
Written by Katie Neith