As a young physician in Harare almost 30 years ago, Dr. Mike Chirenje was stunned by the number of women, many barely 50 years old, who arrived at the hospital with inoperable cervical cancer. “They faced an awful death and many left orphans behind,” he recalls.
During his residency at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in London, Chirenje compared the much lower incidence of cervical cancer in the U.K. with that in sub-Saharan Africa, and realized that one crucial difference was that women in Africa were far less likely to be given pap smears — and therefore be diagnosed while their cancer was treatable — because of test’s cost.
Out of that realization was born a deep, and deeply consequential, devotion to improving women’s health in Africa and elsewhere.
In 1994, Chirenje and two colleagues at the University of Zimbabwe began a collaborative research program on women’s health with the University of California San Francisco. One of their first projects involved testing a simple, less costly protocol to screen for cervical cancer with 11,000 women in Harare. The results, published in The Lancet in 1999, have led to widespread adoption of the new protocol in Africa, India, China, and South America.
Chirenje, who has served as executive director of the UZ-UCSF program since 2003, today oversees a research unit with 400 employees running clinical trials of various drug combinations for treating and preventing the transmission of HIV. He himself is the principal investigator on three-year study of the effectiveness and safety of two different means of preventing HIV infection in women: one, an antiretroviral microbicide, the other, a daily oral medication. The study, which is due to be completed in August 2012, will involve 5,000 participants in Zimbabwe, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, and Malawi.
“Zimbabwe was one of the countries hardest hit by HIV when we began doing our research in the mid-90s,” Chirenje says. “The rates of infection have dropped significantly since then, and I’m grateful that our research has had such an impact.”
It’s been a long time since that day in 1973 when Chirenje set foot on Wooster’s campus for the first time, but he remembers vividly how the Wooster community drew him in. It began, as it did for countless others, when Professor Ted Williams took an interest in a new student who was a long way from home.
“I was doing introductory chemistry and Dr. Williams called me in for a talk after the first lecture,” Chirenje said. “He was like an elder brother who wanted to listen to me. He invited me to go jogging with him and later he asked me to work as an assistant in his lab.”
When Chirenje broke his wrist playing soccer in junior year, he thought he would have to leave the college. “I came to Ted crying and told him ‘It’s my right hand, I can’t write, I can’t take notes. I’m going to have to withdraw.’ Ted said, ‘You’ll learn to write, and titrate, with your left hand.’ And I did.”
When the time came for his senior I.S. project, Chirenje asked Williams to be his advisor. Today, Chirenje still keeps a copy of his I.S. — a chemical analysis of the composition of cataracts — in his library, and says fellow physicians are amazed that he was doing such sophisticated research at that age.
Chirenje draws a very clear connection between those early mentored research experiences and the things he and his research teams have achieved.
“Seventy percent of what I’ve done in the last 20 years has been research. It’s been a major component of my life and Wooster gave me a strong background in analytical thinking, in how to conduct research, and in scientific writing. ”
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