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Chemistry Lab

What happens when HIV researchers fall in love at work? Four tales about science and romance.

By Kristen Jill Kresge, Regina McEnery, and Andreas von Bubnoff

For nearly 30 years, the study of HIV/AIDS has attracted some of the brightest minds in science, and it’s not too surprising that a number of those researchers have linked up outside the lab. How these research couples have been able to successfully intermingle science and love is shown in the following vignettes, which for very unscientific reasons IAVI Report chose to feature in the same month as Valentine’s Day. Like many couples, these scientific duos struggle to find balance between work and home. When they’re not competing for grants, authoring papers, or teaching, some are conducting research and running laboratories in places far from home. There was no shortage of couples working on HIV research to choose from, but ultimately we tried to highlight a few who work in both clinical and basic science and whose work overlaps substantially.
 

RON GRAY AND MARIA WAWER

Not every married couple can claim to have one of the largest collections of foreskins on the planet.

Ron Gray and Maria Wawer amassed these specimens studying whether adult male circumcision could reduce HIV infection rates. And while it might be tempting to crack a joke or two, there is nothing funny about their purpose: These samples could prove uniquely valuable in examining the role of HIV transmission at the mucosal level.

Ron is a professor in the Department of Population and Family Planning, and Maria is a professor in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, both at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Several years ago, their Phase III study, along with two other studies by other research groups, showed at least a 60% reduction in HIV incidence among adult heterosexual men in Africa who underwent circumcision. The couple has been advocating ever since for implementation of this surgical procedure as an HIV prevention strategy.

Ron and Maria have been studying HIV/AIDS, side-by-side, for more than 20 years. Their research is conducted largely through the Rakai Health Sciences Center, a Uganda-based program that began as the Rakai Project to study the magnitude and dynamics of HIV, and has developed into a multi-institutional collaboration employing more than 400 people. Maria helped launch the Rakai Project in 1987 when she was an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University. Three years later, Ron, a trained epidemiologist, shifted his research to HIV as well.

Theirs is a close-knit arrangement that both acknowledge might not suit everyone. They have adjoining offices at Hopkins and fly back and forth together to Africa. They work on almost all their projects together and share the same staff. They author the same papers and present at the same conferences. Maria notes that their “skill sets” are extremely complimentary and that they have become a really great team. “We are never lonely. Researchers can sometimes get lonely,” she says.

Outside of work, they spend a lot of their free time at the movies—seeing about 200 films a year, many foreign—and cater to their three rescued dogs. Ron’s two children from a previous marriage are grown and Ron recently became a grandfather.

So does their working relationship ever feel too intense? “I would say one of the greatest disadvantages of working together is that every three days you want to kill each other,” Maria jokes. “On the plus side,” says Ron, “all our arguments are not about personal matters, but about science.”

Sometimes their disagreements are very public. One time, Ron and Maria were invited to an international AIDS conference to debate each other on a topic that neither could recall. But they both remembered how high the stakes were. “I said if you win there is no sex for six months,” says Maria.

Guess who prevailed, Ron says, laughing, though he insisted it was on the merits of her argument.

Ron met Maria in the early 1980s, when she dropped by his office at Hopkins. “I was completely bowled over by this red-hot lady,” he recalls. “She was literally radiating heat.” Indeed, Maria was battling a high fever and bug bites that had festered into tropical ulcers following a recent trip to Africa.

But for Ron, that wasn’t the only kind of heat Maria was radiating. Within six months, Ron and Maria were involved romantically. They lived together for about a decade until one night, at the urging of a friend and after a night on the town, Ron stuck a plastic flower in his mouth, knelt down on the sidewalk, and said what Maria heard as, “Will you marry me?”

“Till this day, he insists he said, ‘Will you carry me,’” she says.

 

DAVE AND SHELBY O’CONNOR

Most people probably wouldn’t think a monster truck rally is very romantic. But for Dave and Shelby O’Connor, it did the trick. “I think we started dating after that,” Shelby remembers. “No one can resist the charm of a good monster truck rally,” says Dave, jokingly.

The rally took place in the late 1990s in Urbana-Champaign, where the two had become friends as undergraduate students. Shelby later moved to join Dave as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2001, Dave proposed to Shelby on the top of a mountain in Canada. “She asked if I was kidding,” he says. “I said no and she said, ‘Oh, in that case, sure!’ And that was that.” They were married in 2002.

Dave is now an associate professor at the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shelby works as an associate scientist in his lab, with 70% of her salary and time paid by her own grant, which also pays for her own technician. “I do some stuff with him and for him and some stuff is part of my own grant,” she says, adding that she might become even more independent in the future. “I think that moving forward I do need to develop some related but independent projects so that we will have different paths.”

One of their most important shared projects is their two and a half year old son, Eli. One thing that prepared them for raising a child was to have pets, Dave says. First, they got a lovebird named Noodles, and then a dog named Triscuit. “Each one of them was a trial,” he says. “The bird was to show that we can be responsible for some other living entity and the dog was a trial in structured responsibility.”

Full-time research schedules and a small child keep them very busy, but they say they have found a way to manage it all. They take Eli to daycare in the morning, pick him up at around 4:30 pm, and then go home to spend time with their son until he goes to bed. “We try very, very hard to have dinner together,” Dave says. To make up for the lost time, they often work some more in the evening, in what Dave calls their second shift. “One of the tradeoffs for trying to keep from 4:30 until about 7:30 open for the family is that we pretty much need to recover some additional work time most nights. That’s just a tradeoff we are happy to make.”

As a couple, they enjoy sports and outdoor pursuits. Now that they have a small child, they don’t have as much time to work out together as they used to, Shelby says, but twice a week they have a “lunchtime date” to go swimming. Shelby says the five-minute drive to the gym is when she has some of the best discussions with Dave about work.

One piece of advice they have for couples who try to manage research with a family is balance. “We both are very committed to working on HIV because it’s a terrible global problem,” Dave says, “but we have [to] make sure it’s balanced against the priorities [of] maintaining a family and other relationships.”

One perk of being married to a scientist, Dave says, is that Shelby is a “bad idea filter.” When she doesn’t like some of his ideas, she just rolls her eyes. When Dave said he was going to make a video to announce the 2008 nonhuman primate meeting in Puerto Rico, starring him and another scientist in the lab singing “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys while playing the guitar and wearing latex gloves and lab coats, Shelby was skeptical. “I think I did roll my eyes at that and I thought, what are you crazy?” she says. “But it did turn out to be kind of funny in the end.” Judge for yourself: http://labs.pathology.wisc.edu/oconnor/multimedia/videos.html.

 

SUSAN ALLEN AND ERIC HUNTER

It can be challenging for an epidemiologist and a molecular immunologist to find common ground, particularly when one is half-a-world away in Africa, but Emory University AIDS researchers Susan Allen and Eric Hunter managed to do just that, and found love in the process.

Susan gets credit for sparking the collaboration. Both get credit for making it work. The couple met in 1996 at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where Eric headed the Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) and Susan was a newly recruited epidemiologist from the University of California, San Francisco. Susan invited Eric to visit her clinical sites in Africa so CFAR could see the work that was being done there.

The visit put the epidemic in perspective for Eric, who until then had never been to sub-Saharan Africa. They also found they were quite compatible. “We discovered it was a lot of fun to work together,” Eric recalls.

“Before we met, Eric had not even been working on viruses from Africa,” says Susan. “I think in a way by marrying him I kind of pulled him into this realm and it worked out really well for everybody.”

The most prominent example of their work collaboration involved data from Eric’s lab suggesting that in most cases of heterosexual HIV transmission just one transmitted virus variant is responsible for establishing a productive infection in the recipient, suggesting that there is a genetic bottleneck that limits the degree of variation as the virus is transmitted. Eric, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory, was able to reach this conclusion analyzing samples from serodiscordant couples from the Rwanda Zambia HIV Research Group (RZHRG) that Susan founded in Rwanda in 1986 when she was still in California. Susan, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Emory School of Medicine and a professor of global health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory, remains the driving force behind the RZHRG, which tracks the longest-running and largest cohort of HIV serodiscordant couples in the world.

Eric and Susan face many of the same challenges as other working couples, with their situation made even more complicated by the fact that they are separated for several weeks at a stretch. They also both have children from previous marriages. When they met, Susan’s sons were two and three and Eric’s daughters were 11 and 13. “As parents we couldn’t be gone from home so we made a pact that we wouldn’t be away from the kids for more than a week with both of us gone. We held to that,” says Susan.

“I think if you ask any scientist, the hardest balance is home and work,” adds Eric. “Research is not a nine to five job. It is quite consuming in terms of what you are thinking about and so trying to make that balance is one of the hardest things for me. We do have times when we go out to dinner and we say to each other we are not going to talk work tonight. The hardest thing is to not constantly bring your work into everything you do.”

But if you do have to bring your work home with you, Susan jokes that you can charge for pillow talk the same way lawyers bill for hours, only to add that it never really feels like work. “Of course when we are talking about this stuff it’s because we love it,” she says.

 

SALIM AND QUARRAISHA ABDOOL KARIM

Circumstances were not in their favor when Salim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim connected at a party in 1987. The party was being thrown in Salim’s honor—five days later he was moving from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, to New York City to study epidemiology at Columbia University. He and Quarraisha managed to squeeze in a few dates in the short time before his departure and there was instant chemistry. “We sort of knew each other for about five days and decided it was time to get married,” Salim remembers.

They kept in touch through letters, and then six months later they were married in South Africa. The wedding, a 600-person affair, foreshadowed the couple’s ability to organize large-scale events that have come to be some of the hallmarks of their careers together as co-principal investigators of HIV prevention trials.

After the wedding, Quarraisha joined Salim in New York City and also studied epidemiology at Columbia. Ironically, it was here and not in their home country, which is now the epicenter of the pandemic, that their focus turned to HIV. “When we came back to South Africa in 1989, we basically established ourselves as researchers ready to tackle HIV full steam,” says Salim.

By 1990, they published their first research paper together. At that time South Africa was still under apartheid and the couple was actively involved in anti-apartheid activism in addition to their research. Once apartheid was lifted, South African researchers could at last apply for international research grants. In 1997, Salim applied for and received his first research grant from the Wellcome Trust in the UK. Soon after, he received a grant from the US National Institutes of Health.

Around that same time Salim and Quarraisha became co-investigators of a microbicide trial to see if a new gel formulation of the spermicide nonoxynol-9 (N-9) could prevent HIV infection in a cohort of female sex workers. The trial’s data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) stopped the trial early, but the investigators were still blinded and didn’t know which arm had the higher HIV incidence. “I was so excited to hear that the DSMB stopped the trial,” Salim recalls, having assumed at the time that the microbicide had worked. It wasn’t until about eight months later that the investigators learned that the HIV incidence was actually substantially higher in the N-9 group. “I was shocked,” says Salim. “We were organizing for the AIDS conference in Durban and we thought this microbicide trial was going to be the highlight only to learn that we were going to give the worst news of the conference.”

This spectacular failure didn’t deter the husband and wife team. Salim and Quarraisha went on to conduct other microbicide trials together, and last year their determination finally paid off. Although they could not deliver good news in Durban in 2000, they stole the show ten years later at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, announcing that a Phase IIb trial they co-led in South Africa had shown that a vaginal microbicide gel containing 1% of the antiretroviral tenofovir reduced HIV incidence by a statistically significant 39%. The data, published in Science, was greeted with unbridled optimism. “It was just so exciting to be involved in it,” the couple recalls.

Even their three children—an 18-year-old daughter who studies law at the University of Cape Town, a 15-year-old daughter who is in high school, and a 12-year-old son in primary school—shared in the excitement. Although they both keep hectic travel schedules, they have a rule not to travel together so that one of them is always home with the children. Vienna was an exception. Sundays are reserved for family time and usually involve long walks or bicycle rides.

The biggest advantage they see in working together is in knowing how the other thinks, which isn’t to say they always agree.

In her spare time, Quarraisha enjoys reading, either alone or with the children. She discloses that Salim’s down time often involves a television. “Salim is not telling you about his passion for watching sports,” Quarraisha says. “I like cricket in particular,” he admits, “and no one wants to join me for five days of cricket watching.”