AIDS institute fosters collaboration of resources

When Alan Greenberg was a medical student at GW decades ago, he described Washington as a “powerhouse of expertise” in the study and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

But when he returned to Foggy Bottom in 2005 as the department chair of epidemiology and biostatistics in the School of Public Health, he noticed that Washington has a wealth of AIDS research, but lacks a system for networking the resources.

Along with Gary Simon, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the School of Medicine, the two doctors brought together clinicians and researchers from several GW institutions to create what would become the GW HIV/AIDS Institute. Last month the institute celebrated its one-year anniversary and while it may be young, Greenberg said it has a bright future.

“This is not a day job for any of us,” Greenberg said about the pro-bono volunteer-based institution.

Greenberg, who is both a co-founder and co-director with Simon, said it is best to think of the institute as a virtual umbrella organization. Rather than a concrete establishment with a central office and an agenda, the institute is a venue for connecting and organizing AIDS study and treatment resources at GW and in the District.

In March, the University approved the institute’s proposal for an HIV/AIDS Studies graduate certificate program, set to begin in fall 2007. The program includes courses in policy, care, prevention and epidemiology.

“(The institute) is important for GW because it helps to promote interdepartmental collaboration and it is bringing together a variety of disciplines,” Simon said. “It is important for Washington because it is inter-institutional and bringing together researchers from several organizations.”

Another reason for its importance in the nation’s capitol is because the disease is more prevalent in the District than in other parts of the country

Alex Lawson, a health educator and counselor at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and co-founder of the AIDS advocacy group D.C. Fights Back, said 5 percent of the D.C. population is estimated to be infected with HIV, compared to less than 1 percent nationwide.

“Truly everybody is at risk when you’re at five percent of the population,” Lawson said.

Many of the institute’s compartments are reaching out to the high-risk areas of the District, when possible.

The institute has not received funding from the University or elsewhere. Its money is a result of each member donating his or her own time to research and collaborations.

Members include doctors and researchers from various GW colleges, area hospitals and research centers. The result of bringing these people together, supporters said, is that each member gets to have conversations that they wouldn’t otherwise be having, with colleagues they wouldn’t otherwise be talking to.

The institute has also collaborated with undergraduates involved in the GW’s Student Global Aids Campaign, a nation-wide project organized by Students for Global Justice.

Junior Lindsay Wheeler, GW’s chapter leader of the campaign, and sophomore Anna White, the group’s outreach coordinator, both noted the institute’s contribution to the Student and Youth Conference on AIDS, Trade and Child Survival, which drew attendees from high schools and colleges all over the country in February.

The group that Wheeler leads participates in advocacy and outreach programs around the city. Recently, the group taught students about safe sex at an AIDS awareness day at Sasha Bruce Charter School in Northwest Washington, distributed condoms in Southeast D.C. and attended a recent rally for changes in AIDS legislation in front of the White House.

Greenberg said the institute has defined itself as an interdepartmental, interdisciplinary organization committed to facilitating and improving HIV/AIDS research, and this is ultimately “how the success or failure of the institute will be judged.”

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