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AIDS institute seeks student relations

By Kelly Rayburn

May 20, 2004 9:00 p.m.

High above the bustle of campus, in labs on the top stories of
the Factor Building, scientists from the UCLA AIDS Institute
conduct some of the world’s most advanced HIV research. And
while they work toward making people more resistant to one of the
modern world’s great killers, a largely untapped resource in
the multi-faceted struggle against AIDS passes on the walkways
below. Yes, with all its technology and brainpower, the AIDS
institute could still use some help from UCLA undergraduates.
Hoping to develop stronger connections with students, the institute
is starting an AIDS ambassador program for those interested in
combating the disease ““ an epidemic the institute’s
executive director calls “the great plague of our
lifetimes.” On a campus where hundreds of students dance the
night away for the benefit of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS
Foundation (which is unaffiliated with UCLA), Edwin Bayrd, the
institute’s executive director, believes the level of
interaction between undergraduates and the institute on their own
campus is insufficient. “A lot of (students) don’t even
know there is a world-renowned AIDS institute at UCLA,” Bayrd
said. Elizabeth Withers-Ward, who conducted research with the
institute before assuming her current position as a managing
director, said, “I’ve been here for 10 years, and
I’ve never really talked to students. “¦ There are
really no connections.” Bayrd and Withers-Ward want that to
change. The ambassador program will start in fall and involve
students offering 250 hours of their time toward community service
and AIDS awareness efforts. Students will be paid a stipend of
$1,500 for the year. Applicants will be asked to submit an
application and an essay of roughly 300 words by the end of spring
quarter. During the summer, the AIDS institute will select up to 12
students who will serve as the inaugural class of ambassadors. The
institute is offering a a lunch-hour “virtual tour” of
the AIDS institute for potential applicants ““ and anybody
else ““ on Monday. A video showing the institute’s
various ways of confronting AIDS will be screened, and Marguerita
Lightfoot, a behavioral psychologist with the institute, will give
a short presentation on programs she has developed to help prevent
young people from HIV infection. Looking for potential ambassadors,
Bayrd said he would be happy with Monday’s program “if
people left feeling they had to get involved, even if their
involvement is just talking to their fraternity “¦ their
roommates ““ that sort of thing.” He adds young people
are often the most effective educators of other people their age
““ and that’s part of the reason for the ambassador
program. The general idea behind the program is to get students
involved in community service and AIDS awareness work with the
“seal of approval” of the AIDS institute, Bayrd said.
Requisites to earning that seal of approval include some training
sessions done by the institute and completion of Molecular, Cell
and Developmental Biology 40 ““ Roger Bohman’s
course on AIDS. MCD Bio 40 is one of the most popular courses on
campus, often taken by North Campus students looking to fulfill a
science general education requirement. Covering the biology of HIV
and AIDS, the class also delves into questions regarding how
society confronts the epidemic philosophically, exploring various
prejudices and stigmas people have about the disease. Bohman has
been in contact with Bayrd and Withers-Ward about the ambassadors
program and what exactly it would entail. As part of his class,
Bohman encourages students to do community service with
organizations like Project Angel Food, which delivers meals to
people infected with HIV. Such experience “puts a face on the
disease” for students, Bohman said. Asked how important the
service aspect of his course is, he said, “It’s almost
as important as my lectures ““ and I’m being
facetious. It’s the most important part of the class.”
Having taught over 22,000 students in his MCD Bio 40 class, Bohman
feels rewarded to know he’s compelled young people to do
HIV-related community work. Some, he said, continue such service
after his class. “When they say that,” he said,
“it really makes me happy.”

A broad approach to defeat AIDS Twenty-three years after UCLA
physicians described a “newly acquired
immunodeficiency” in 1981, UCLA doctors and scientists
confront the AIDS epidemic in each of the world’s six
inhabited continents. Members of UCLA’s AIDS institute
conduct field research in places as distant from Westwood as India,
China, sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil. At UCLA, meanwhile,
scientists investigate why it is that a small percentage of white
North Americans naturally are resistant to HIV. Others run tests on
lab mice, whose immune systems are in many respects similar to
those of humans. Medically, institute doctors are developing new
types of treatment, aiming to keep patients’ viral loads so
low as to be undetectable while simultaneously minimizing side
effects. The video to be shown Monday displays the size and scope
of the AIDS institute. (Indeed, Bayrd said one reason for the
virtual tour was so that institute employees can learn about what
their coworkers are doing as part of a broad, far-reaching
struggle.) While the institute is a leader in both treatment and
research, part of its mission to stop AIDS necessarily involves
education of people who don’t have the disease. And educators
at the institute are finding new ways to teach those people.
Lightfoot’s speech Monday is titled “Engaging Youth in
HIV Prevention ““ the Innovative Use of
Technology.” Lately her work has been focused on using
computer technology to warn people of the dangers of HIV. With a
team of researchers she developed a computer program that presents
characters in high-risk situations and offers solutions to their
problems. The hope is that program users will learn effective
methods for how to confront such situations in real-life. In
Lightfoot’s line of work, the first step in learning how to
teach young people how to keep themselves healthy is learning to
understand the community that is targeted. With her most recent
project, that community was young Angelenos, many of them homeless,
some of them runaways. In developing a computer program, Lightfoot
said she and her coworkers consulted their target audience about
how the characters should look and act. When rough versions of the
game were completed, that audience was asked if any parts of it
were “corny.” “A lot of information is out
there,” Lightfoot said. “But it’s not always in a
language (the audience) can understand.” Hana Shash, a UCLA
student working toward a master’s degree in African Studies
with a specialization in public health, expresses a related
sentiment. Shash, who received a U.S. State Department internship
and will travel to Ethiopia this summer to help write a plan on how
to combat HIV in that country, said there is a lot of information
available, but, “There are also people who don’t have
access to education the way we do.” The program Lightfoot
developed, meanwhile, has been used as an education tool for
children who have gotten in trouble with the law or at previous
schools. Initial indications, Lightfoot said, show the computer
program is highly successful.

Information and ignorance Strong, healthy young men would
suddenly become weak and sick. They would lose half their body
weight, headed toward death. People wondered about a new “gay
cancer.” This was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the
United States. “(People) died weighing 72 pounds and they
died covered with sores,” Bayrd said. Perhaps most
frightening, no one seemed to know the disease’s origins.
Half-baked theories were at least as prevalent as scientific
information. In the first years of the 21st century, so much is
different. AIDS is now the subject of MTV programs, freeway
billboards, junior high sex education, movies, books, plays,
presidential speeches and, of course, university courses. As
Lightfoot said, “A lot of information is out there.”
But still, good information seems to be in need as much as ever.
According to Bayrd, high-risk behavior is on the rise among young
people. In fact, a study done by a UCLA student concluded medical
students here ““ who should know about HIV if anyone should
““ were as likely to have unprotected sex as were people their
age in South Central Los Angeles. As HIV patients lead long lives
and appear perfectly healthy, experts will tell you misinformation
is rampant. AIDS isn’t understood to be the killer it was
““ and still is. In an editorial for the “UCLA AIDS
Institute Insider,” Bayrd writes of how HIV victims in the
Third World can be identified by “the drawn faces and wasted
frames, the ashy skin and brittle hair.” By contrast in Los
Angeles and San Francisco, the disease has almost become invisible.
“This central paradox of the AIDS epidemic,” Bayrd
writes, “confounds our efforts to contain and ultimately cure
the great plague of our lifetimes.” As efforts become
confounded, they also become creative and nuanced. Lightfoot
expresses the need to relate to the community that is targeted.
Bayrd and Sherri Lewis, a patient with the institute, both stress
the importance of peer education. Through the ambassador program,
students could take part in such efforts. “They can talk to
other 18-year-olds in a way a 48-year-old can’t,” Bayrd
said. Though treatment has improved, people must not be misled
about what it is like to be infected with HIV, says Lewis, who
takes a number of drugs to keep her viral load low. She also notes
she is being treated for an HIV strand she was infected with in
1987. A new version of the virus may be immune to the drugs she
says. “The only vaccine,” the HIV survivor said,
“is education.”

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Kelly Rayburn
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