Marc Cunningham: I began working in HIV when…

While growing up in Jos, Nigeria, one of my important mentors, Mary Beth Oyebade, started the Mashiah Foundation with her husband to support HIV+ women and widows. Their dedication to meeting the clear needs they saw showed me how relevant and important holistically addressing HIV/AIDS is in Nigeria. I just knew I was going to become a doctor.

During my college years, though taking pre-med classes, I sort of fell into dual degrees in math and humanities.  So much for that dream.  Models and sociology had shifted my focus more broadly to systems and populations rather than individuals. While deciding where to go next with that, I returned to teach at my old school in Jos, and had the opportunity to volunteer with Halt AIDS, a local NGO.  It was my first exposure to true, community-based public health work.

Seeing the challenges my colleagues there faced in advocacy and youth mobilization showed me I lacked the skills needed to be much more than just “boots on the ground”.  So, I spent two years at Emory University studying epidemiology and geographic influences on health. While studying, I worked with Susan Allen at the Rwanda Zambia HIV AIDS Research Group who looks at prevention of HIV among discordant couples—where one partner has HIV and the other doesn’t. Dr. Allen shared her extensive passion for the field and her expertise with me—the AIDS epidemic is a huge problem stretching across different sectors, requiring lots of people with lots of resources looking at it from lots of perspectives.

After a year’s training fellowship with the CDC’s geographic analysis group, I moved to JSI, where I use GIS for public health applications—from monitoring and evaluation to creating maps for decision makers.  As fate would have it, much of my current work here focuses on HIV prevention work, continuing to involve me in the field which drew my eye to health and service in the first place.

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