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Researching HIV: My Experience as a High School Student

In 1981, the CDC published its first report on an AIDS-related illness, signaling the beginning of a worldwide epidemic. Four decades of research have transformed HIV/AIDs from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness; yet still no cure. Five years ago, when I had my first opportunity to participate in HIV research I was both horrified and intrigued by how such a simple organism as a virus could survive decades of dedicated research.

As a kid, immune cells seemed cool because they ‘fight’ germs. Then I met Una O’Doherty, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the mother of a friend of my brother. In addition to being a great cook, she ran an HIV lab. I asked to volunteer for her. At the time I was a 7th grader. Hesitantly, she allowed me to visit, beginning a years-long mentorship and igniting my passion for research.

That first summer, I made coffee, read articles and observed. Within weeks, my understanding of the virus evolved. On the technical side, I learned that HIV is not cured after decades of treatment because of a 'reservoir' of HIV-infected cells. The ‘reservoir’ refers to infected cells that persist through treatment. Reservoir cells resume infection whenever treatment stops, necessitating lifelong therapy. Eradicating the reservoir is vital to curing the virus.

On the personal side, I came to appreciate the gravity of the epidemic. About 1.2 million individuals in the United States live with HIV, and nearly a million die each year of AIDS-related events worldwide. Stigma is a challenge for those living with the virus and for accessing medication. Meeting people living with HIV transformed the mission from abstract to concrete.

As my research grew more autonomous, I became determined to figure out how the reservoir persists. Late Sunday nights were spent at the lab finishing up one more experiment before taking the last train home. Researchers believed that the reservoir persisted because HIV could 'hide' from the immune system. The research I conducted for my Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) project reveals a more optimistic story. We analyzed changes in the genetic makeup of HIV from people on medication for many years and showed that our bodies can actually recognize and partially destroy the reservoir. Yet I found that cell division of HIV-infected cells occurs rapidly and is key to reservoir maintenance. I’m currently a high school senior, and will be taking a gap year next year to figure out how to stop this cell division, working towards a target for cures. After my weeklong, eye-opening experience as an STS finalist, where I got to know 39 other young scientists, I feel more inspired than ever to continue my research.

Through efforts of scientists around the world, our understanding of the reservoir has evolved tremendously. Just this month, a second individual appears functionally cured of HIV; though the method is not widely applicable, it gives hope that the virus can be eradicated. To discover curative medications, we must encourage and fund research for a cure that is more achievable than ever.

Samuel Weissman, age 17, placed second in the Regeneron Science Talent Search – the nation's oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors – for his project analyzing the genetic makeup of HIV in two people on long-term anti-retroviral therapy to understand why they continued to have “reservoirs” of treatment-resistant HIV-infected cells. A program of Society for Science & the Public since 1942, the Regeneron Science Talent Search focuses on identifying, inspiring and engaging the nation’s most promising young scientists who are creating the ideas that could solve society’s most urgent challenges.

National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is April 10!

Youth activists working to end HIV stigma and increase awareness. Learn more and get involved at

Posted By: Guest Blogger: Samuel Weissman - Monday, April 08, 2019

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