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Taking Aim at AIDS

When Chikoti Mibenge’s father died in Kitwe, Zambia, she and her younger brother were told he’d been a victim of witchcraft. When her mother took sick, Chikoti, then 17, cared for her as her condition worsened. Her mother never admitted what was wrong, and the family could afford neither testing nor treatment — but, by then, Chikoti knew this was AIDS.

“After her death, her sisters were very harsh on us,” Chikoti says. “They felt we had brought shame. I decided, ‘If this is what you think about me, let me change that, and do things for myself.’”

She won a Zambian national scholarship to the UWC of the Adriatic. As a biological chemistry major who graduates this spring from Wellesley College, Chikoti has become a promising young researcher in the quest for an AIDS vaccine. She worked as an intern at the Partners AIDS Research Center in Charlestown, Mass., where her research, the basis for her senior thesis, focused on how key protein receptors are recognizing the AIDS virus in cells.

Last autumn, Chikoti was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women of 2006. When she went up on stage at the New York City ceremony, having shared her story, women in the audience were in tears.

“Oh my God, I just didn’t expect this story would have such an impact,” Chikoti muses. “But I’m glad it did.” Her family now expresses admiration for how far she has gone. But Chikoti isn’t through: “I see myself breaking barriers,” she reflects, “and giving
people things they can hold onto in their lives.”