McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

BHSc students participate in the International AIDS Conference

Published: August 23, 2010
Bachelor of Health Sciences students and leaders of the global health specialization pose with Paul Farmer, the United Nations deputy special envoy to Haiti.

Among the delegates attending this year's International AIDS Conference, a biennial gathering of those working to put an end to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, was a small team of students from McMaster University.

Lucy Chen, Karen Bamberger, Rhyanna Cho, Lauren Daley, Sarah Donaldson, Jennifer Edge, Rubeeta Gill, Narmeen Haider, Alvin Keng, Christina Klassen, Dolly Lin, Tinya Lin, Beverley Preater, Katryna Stemmler, Carolyn Travers, Le Wang, along with their supervisor Sheila Barrett, coordinator of the global health specialization in the Bachelor of Health Sciences program, made the trek to Vienna, Austria, in July to present two research posters.

Chen, a third-year Bachelor of Health Sciences student, shares her experience below.

A few months before the conference, our team submitted three pieces of research to the conference's organizing committee with the hopes of presenting in Vienna. Although we had some optimism, we doubted that a team of undergraduate students specializing in global health would have a shot at presenting at an international conference. When the news arrived in May that two of our three abstracts had been accepted, we were ecstatic.

With the help of modern technology our group orchestrated meetings to work on the posters that we were going to present at the conference. It was difficult to manage as our team was dispersed throughout the country, and even the world, but we were able to meet weekly to discuss, deliberate and collaborate on the two posters we would be presenting: one, an examination of nutrition and antiretroviral medical treatment in Ghana; the other, an examination of transactional sexual behaviour in Papua New Guinea.

The week leading up to the conference was a scramble to the finish line, but in the end we produced two beautiful posters. Despite all of our hard work, many of us felt quite intimidated by the prospect of engaging with people who would come to see our poster. Would people even be interested in what we had to say? What if we couldn't answer their questions? What if Bill Clinton, who would be at the conference, came to see our poster? We assured each other that we were experts in our research topics and that we would present to the best of our ability.

When we arrived in Vienna, everything felt surreal. The conference's opening ceremony was unlike anything we had ever seen. The Schönbrunn Palace String Quartet played on the stage of the main hall as we took our seats while protesters weaved in and out of the aisles holding up giant signs calling for continued public funding for HIV/AIDS relief despite the global economic recession. People were dressed in snazzy suits, traditional garments and t-shirts promoting safe sex. There was a great deal of diversity in the crowd.

Among some of the keynote speakers that day was conference co-chair Brigitte Schmied, who delivered a speech of welcome, and singer Annie Lennox, who shared her experiences as an HIV/AIDS activist. Throughout the week we had the privilege of hearing from people such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, who were both plenary speakers at the conference, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who sent video messages delivered during the closing ceremonies. We also heard from Kgalema Motlanthe, former president of South Africa, and Debrework Zewdie, director of the global HIV/AIDS program for the World Bank.

We also had the unique opportunity to get our photos taken with Paul Farmer, the current deputy UN special envoy for Haiti and author of one of our textbooks. He delivered a workshop on HIV/AIDS relief efforts in Haiti.

Some of us were able to attend sessions on topics related to our prospective thesis projects. We were able to network with researchers and NGO leaders working in many different fields and talk with them about the issues that we are passionate about.

When it came time for us to shine in the spotlight and present our own work, we were able to speak with enthusiasm and conviction. Although Bill Clinton didn't come by, we did meet some amazing people who took a genuine interest in our research.

The International AIDS Conference was an experience that will not be forgotten. The energy and excitement that we felt during our stay in Vienna was unreal. We witnessed firsthand the amazing effects that uniting people with a similar passion can have. Universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment is within our grasp, and it is unity that will help turn this vision into reality.

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