Jorge Benitez Community Engagement Coordinator
Columbia Physicians and Surgeons CRS, New York, NY
In 1980, when I was 10, living in East New York, Brooklyn, the streets were riddled with heroin injection drug users and soon followed by the crack epidemic. My neighbors also included gay men. Some owned it, however many more preferred to keep their sexuality private. Now it’s 2018 and we still struggle with breaking down the systemic stigmas of being an LGBTQI & Same Gender Loving person. At that time, I witnessed the deterioration of people’s physiques, having fallen ill at the hands of what scientists discovered to be HIV years later. My neighbors were dropping like flies. No one knew why and few cared. There wasn’t much empathy toward drug users and “gays.”
Fast forward 20 years. I made a transition from corporate design to concentrating my studies in biology, phlebotomy, and medical assisting. A friend pointed me to an open position with a research project that was right up my alley, in that it focused on testing a risk-reduction tool among non-injection drug users and their sexual and drug-using networks whose sexual orientations were diverse. In summary, we learned that risk-behavior is challenging to decrease, especially over time, and that the MSM in the study were at higher risk than their heterosexual counterparts.
HIV vaccine research, to me, was a chance to contribute to my communities who were most at risk of getting HIV by exposing them to an intervention that could potentially prevent new infections with an injection (or 4) J. This is my driving force. The fact that the first drug, Truvada, used for PrEP to prevent HIV was discovered, along with HPV vaccines, gives me much hope that we will one day find an effective vaccine against HIV.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge that together, my family at the Columbia Research Unit, from the PI to me, all bust our butts to do the best we can while keeping ourselves in good spirits. This makes going to work a pleasure as we push forward with our scientific agenda.