By Bonnie Snyder
Jennifer Gay '13 had a dilemma. It was time to choose a research project, but she was equally interested in two topics: the disparity in HIV care and prevention in African communities and understanding limb deformities caused by Down syndrome.
Rather than choose, the College's first public health major opted to pursue both.
"Although these projects look very different, both fit into who I am as a student," Gay said. "I've always been interested in science and the [humanities], and F&M has let me pursue each of these passions."
Gay's first project led her to Zwelethemba, a township in Worcester, two hours northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. Gay has a keen interest in child health, and was drawn to the plight of HIV-infected orphans. She discovered that in the absence of a coordinated governmental response, the matriarchs of the community were filling the gap in care.
"My project focused on 'safety mothers' -- informal foster parents who have emerged due to the high prevalence of HIV," Gay said. When parents with AIDS would die, the townships' elderly women would band together to care for orphaned and neglected children.
"In that country alone, there are about 2 million HIV orphans," Gay said. "The [governmental] support network is not there, and it has come down to the communities to make this happen. Without safety mothers, children would be left in child-led households with very few resources."
In Kenya, 3,400 miles to the north of Zwelethemba, Gay found much different results.
"Kenya has about half as many AIDS orphans, but twice the funding. I'm looking at how and why these situations are so different and I'm trying to emphasize the fact that there is such heterogeneity across the African continent that often goes unrecognized. These two countries are representative of that."
Her African research was mainly qualitative and in the field, but Gay also conducted quantitative research in the lab at Franklin & Marshall with Associate Professor of Biology Clara Moore. Their goal was to learn more about the origins of the limb deformities that occur in those with the chromosomal disorder Down syndrome. Using mice with the disorder, Gay analyzed tiny samples of embryonic tissue at various points in development in the hope of ascertaining the points at which the abnormalities occur.
Gay enjoyed the challenge of conducting disparate forms of research.
"Scientific research is quantitative, precise, and can be painstaking, very detailed. It’s a lot slower," Gay said. "The African research came together much faster."
Moore believes the two experiences will give Gay an edge in her endeavors after F&M.
"Jen exemplifies the first of many talented students pursuing careers in public health who will emerge into a changing world, and they will have the spirit and knowledge to have a great impact upon human health on a global scale," Moore said.