Be Open, Ask Questions
Reproductive Health and HIV Prevention
Q: In what field of science do you work?
I work in the fields of reproductive health and HIV prevention. I also teach an undergraduate course in human sexuality. But I began my career working as a laboratory scientist for seven years where I researched viral pathogenesis (how viruses cause disease) in an effort to make an HIV vaccine. One grant I currently work on focuses on training family planning clinicians to keep them up-to-date on evidence-based skills and information so they can provide the highest quality care to their patients. My work team of six women serves nurse practitioners, midwives, physician assistants, and doctors who work at more than 4,000 federally funded family planning clinics throughout the U.S. and territories. Another grant I work on provides training to the HIV prevention workforce in an effort to achieve no new HIV infections. We collaborate with 21 organizations nationwide to do this work. A goal, both nationally and globally, is that by the year 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV-positive status, 90% percent of those who are HIV-positive will be on antiretroviral treatment, and 90% of the people receiving antiretroviral treatment will have undetectable levels of virus. I am still working on HIV prevention, but no longer from the lab bench.
When I began my career I was what many people traditionally think of as a scientist — wearing a lab coat and using a pipette to pick up cells and look at them under a microscope. Now I work to get science applied into routine clinical practices or HIV-prevention services. My career has transitioned but it is still science in a different form. It's healthcare-delivery science and implementation science and the science of health improvement. I spend a significant amount of time analyzing data to show how our programs are making a difference.
Q: Do you remember any inspirations as a child that led you to this role?
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where I was surrounded by science. My father worked as a microbiologist; he had a Ph.D. in microbiology and was specifically an environmental microbiologist whose passion was clean water systems. And my mother worked as a medical technician and a nurse, so science was a part of our home. We grew up with a microscope in our house, and I enjoyed finding small hidden worlds with that microscope. I liked looking at gross things like mud, scabs, and boogers. I wanted to get a closer look to see what they were composed of. To look at a few drops of muddy water and see that there were tiny insects, plants, and a whole microcosm within there was quite fascinating to me.
Science was a subject that always captivated my interest and came easily to me. I appreciated how one of my elementary school science teachers made science seem fun through interactive games. I am aware of my privilege of being exposed to science at a young age and to know that scientific careers were an option for me. I do my best to share STEM opportunities with young people, women, and minorities so that everyone knows about the possibilities to get involved with science. I speak to college freshman about careers in biotechnology. I try to get students excited about science in general — and give them a glimpse of some cool opportunities in different areas of science they can work in.
I did struggle as a preteen and teenager with my interest in science, because none of my friends were interested in it and I didn’t think it was cool. Even through college, I questioned it as a career and whether I should go with something more flashy. As a very social, outgoing person there are aspects of marketing and sales careers that appeal to me, but that coursework didn't excite me the way science classes did, specifically microbiology, which I found to be the most fascinating. For me, learning about infectious diseases is endlessly interesting.
Q: What are some of the particular challenges in your field?
Working in the areas of family planning and HIV prevention is not always supported and is continually at risk. Some see this work as controversial, but sexual health is just health, and the stigma needs to be stopped. Funding is a continual concern. Politicians and national institutes decide the fate of funding priorities. There is so much competition for grants. If your work is not demonstrating positive health outcomes in an efficient manner, you are at risk for not being funded again.
That also goes for laboratory science. Time and efficiency are another challenge. In HIV vaccine development, you can work on something for almost a decade and only contribute a very minute amount of information to the field overall, but that's the way science works. It's not a quick process. To get a treatment to market from the time initial molecules are studied can take up to 15 years and cost up to $1 billion. But that time is essential because evidence has to be shown several times over that vaccines and treatments are safe and effective, because human lives are at risk.
Q: What advice would you give to others following in this path?
I encourage people to find good mentors: someone who can guide, support, and challenge you in the work that you are interested in, and just be there for advice. It doesn't have to be a supervisor or colleague, just someone in the community that you respect and admire. Mentors are valuable as you try to navigate through the many challenges of an ever-changing career field.
I strongly recommend informational interviews. When I realized that a job of strictly laboratory work was not the best fit for my personality and goals, I decided to seek informational interviews before spending a large amount of money and many years of life at graduate school. I cold-called the state health department and asked to come speak to anyone who had a master's in public health degree, and they arranged eight one-hour informational interview sessions for me! People were happy to talk about what they do all day, what they like and do not like about their jobs, and how a master's degree in public health prepared them for their work. I highly recommend this to anyone in any career field. Most people will gladly share their insight, and it's very valuable. It's also a great way to network.
Networking is extremely important. Talking to people can lead to job opportunities, collaborations, and community. Be open. Ask questions. Curiosity and gaining greater understanding are positive things. Trust your gut instincts and be true to your interests and your priorities in life.
One primary issue for women in STEM careers is a lack of family friendly policies and that translates to work-life balance. Our generation is pushed to work more hours that generations of past. Most people now work more than 40 hours per week. My experience working in the public sector, on teams of almost all women, has been that they are flexible around family schedules and supportive of staff working from home as needed. They understand that personal priorities are as important as the work, and that a healthy balance is important.
Q: Is there anything you would like to learn more about and explore?
Two areas I've been learning about, professionally and personally, are reproductive justice and LGBTQIA issues. Reproductive justice is a theoretical framework that looks at how race, gender, and economics relate to sexuality, health, and human rights. The concept combines ideas of reproductive rights and social justice. It was created by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Reproductive justice insists on sexual and gender freedom, health, safety, and bodily autonomy for all people. Throughout history, policies about women's health have primarily been established by cisgender white men — but women, and all individuals, must have the right to make their own informed decisions based on personal beliefs and what is best for their unique lives.
Issues that affect LGBTQIA persons deserve greater support, respect, and understanding at the personal, community, national, and global levels. I continually try to learn how to be a better ally and advocate. It is important to engage in discussions about sexual orientation and gender with students, colleagues, and friends. Sharing lived experiences and accurate information can make a difference in erasing stigma and improving the lives and health equity of people.
Kimberly Carlson is a proud science nerd. She earned undergraduate degrees in Microbiology and Cell Biology and a Master of Public Health degree in Infectious Diseases. In addition to science, traveling, visual art, live music, and dancing make her happy. She lives in the Midwest with her partner, Elvis, and their Persian cat, Henri.
Words: Kimberly Carlson
Image by Jennifer Wetzel