Miracle chooses doctor
Research trip to China helps student decide between career as scientist or physician
By Fariss Samarrai
Aaron Miracle was, in effect, born into a global perspective. While growing up as an American in Taipei, Taiwan, his father worked for the U.S. Foreign Service. His friends were Chinese and Americans living abroad. During his childhood, Miracle spoke English and Chinese and realized that culture played a major role in who we are and how we behave.
His family later moved to McLean, Va., and he began to contemplate a scientific or medical career. He majored in biochemistry at U.Va., and gave some thought to working in a research lab. But he found that growing up in Taiwan had colored his perspective. He wanted to work with people, and to look at ways he could use his anthropological perspective in conjunction with medicine and science.
Last summer, after writing a proposal to study the effects of culture on the spread of AIDS in China, he was selected as a U.Va. Center for Global Health University Scholar.
“I wanted to understand infectious disease in a social and cultural context, how disease affects individual people and societies,” he said. “HIV and AIDS lie at the intersection of culture and pathology.”
According to Miracle, in the United States, people who believe they are at risk for HIV infection may be more likely to get tested. But in China, “very few want to address the idea that they might be infected,” he said. “There are similar issues, but the problem of people being willing to acknowledge the problem is more severe.”
Owing to increasing globalization and a greater influence from the West, China is undergoing rapid change. “People are becoming more open sexually, including public displays of affection,” Miracle said. “At the same time, there is less communication about sexuality than in the West. Sexual practices are changing, but the cultural norms are slower to change. High-risk behavior is not talked about much.” Only about 0.07 percent of the population in China is HIV-positive, but the proportion is growing, particularly among women.
During a three-month period, Miracle conducted his work — interviews and surveys — at a voluntary HIV testing and counseling center in Beijing. He arranged the summer research abroad experience with the help of Dr. Richard Guerrant, director of U.Va.’s Center for Global Health. Guerrant has been establishing exchange programs in South America, Africa and Asia for several years, and one of his contacts in China, Dr. Hong Zhang at Hefei University in Anhui Province — a former postdoc in Guerrant’s lab —helped set up the project for Miracle.
While working at the lab, Miracle learned that his boss was HIV-positive. As he came to know the man better, he felt both admiration and sadness with the knowledge that he was living with this disease and had dedicated his life to helping others who were infected.
“It was the first time that I really came to see HIV as a disease that directly affects an individual person, rather than simply a pathology to be studied,” Miracle said.
Miracle plans to work in the area of infectious disease, with attention to complementary and alternative medicine and an emphasis on the
interactions of biological, social and psychological factors in overall health.
Along with the interesting experience of conducting research abroad, Miracle “got a grip” on his future. “I set out unsure whether I wanted a career as a bench scientist or as a physician treating patients. The verdict is I’m interested in the human side of medicine. It is a burden, a privilege and a responsibility.”