Fighting AIDS in the Lab and on the Dance Floor

By Caperton Gillett


AIDS researcher Anne Bet exhibits a passion for her work in a variety of ways.

Anne Bet wears her heart under her sleeve. Hidden beneath her white lab coat are two permanently inked symbols of her life’s work: The one that looks like a tribal sun is actually the HIV virion; the other—which resembles a child’s jack—is adenovirus, the cause of the common cold and a common delivery vehicle for experimental AIDS vaccines. “I heard stories the entire time I was getting the tattoos done,” says Bet, a graduate student in the UAB Department of Microbiology. “People were saying, ‘She’s in there giving her HIV!’”

Bet has given the two molecules a place of honor on her arm as a reminder of her beginning in virology and the ongoing search for an effective HIV vaccine. In the lab of Paul Goepfert, M.D., director of UAB’s Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic, Bet analyzes patients’ immune response to HIV vaccines. “HIV is such a tiny little thing,” she says, “and yet it causes such tremendous damage. The idea that something so small could be so powerful is interesting.”

Bet shows off her tattoos of the HIV virion (left) and the adenovirus, a common delivery vehicle for experimental AIDS vaccines. Click here for a closer look.

Before she “fell into” HIV research, Bet was working with adenovirus as part of an experimental cancer therapy at a biotech firm. When the needs of the firm changed, her career changed with them. Bet quickly found that HIV research is “really exciting,” she says. “Not only do I get to work on intriguing science, but it has such a big impact. There are so many people who are affected by HIV, and there’s so much that can be done in terms of prevention.” After many disappointments regarding an effective HIV vaccine, patients and researchers had begun to despair of ever seeing a successful vaccine in their lifetimes, Bet says, “yet just recently we had one of the very first effective vaccines” emerge from a five-year trial in Thailand that ended in 2009. Goepfert’s lab is now testing a similar vaccine.

Party With a Purpose

Bet’s enthusiasm for battling HIV isn’t confined to her day job. As her 30th birthday approached this April, she and her friends were searching for a grand way to celebrate. “We said, ‘This has to be big, as all 30th birthdays are supposed to be.’ So I decided to throw a ginormous fundraiser.”

Hear, Hear

The seemingly inexhaustible Bet is also involved in another project—she recently founded the first Toastmasters International public-speaking club at UAB.

Inspired by her own work and the recently passed health-care bill, she transformed her celebration into a benefit for Birmingham AIDS Outreach. The party was planned over the course of three weeks—most of it by phone and e-mail, since Bet was traveling in Belgium and France for much of that time. She secured a venue, found volunteers for decorating, and hired an eight-piece orchestra; she also found a sympathetic caterer in Homewood Gourmet. After she placed her food order, caterer Mitchell Nash was shocked to find that Bet was paying for the entire party out of pocket. “He shared with me his experience with supporting HIV awareness,” Bet says. He then shared with her his employee discount. “I was so lucky I called at the right time from the wrong time zone and Mitchell picked up,” she says.

When the party rolled around, Bet found herself hosting nearly 60 people for her 1930s-themed “Economic Boom” at Sloss Furnaces. The evening of swing music, finger-curls, and fedoras raised about $1,500 by itself, in addition to $500 in donations given to Bet outside of the party.

“I was really happy when I went to talk with Karen Musgrove and Jamie Whitehurst at Birmingham AIDS Outreach,” she says. “They were so supportive. They told me, ‘You’re getting our name out there. You’re doing so much that will bring in something in the future.’ Even though I didn’t make a lot of money for them, they were jumping-up-and-down happy when we met.”

Bet raised about $1,500 for AIDS research through her 1930s-themed 30th birthday party at Sloss Furnaces.

Infectious Enthusiasm

Bet’s next exciting endeavor is a trip to Africa for several months of work at the UAB Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia. “There’s such a great potential for impact on so many people,” she says. “There’s so much that can be done in terms of prevention, not just in the United States but in other parts of the world where people don’t have the same education about the disease and transmission.”

But Bet is quick to point out that it isn’t necessary to go as far as Zambia to find people touched by AIDS. She found one in an airport bathroom, for instance, in the form of a stranger helping her dress her then fresh tattoos. “I thought she’d think I was crazy with these tattoos on my bicep,” Bet says. “But she just said, ‘That looks familiar.’” The woman, it turned out, had lost a son to HIV in the mid-1980s. “We had a conversation about improvements in treatment and what it was like for him and how people treated him. It really made me realize how far we in the HIV community have come toward gaining some acceptance and support,” she says. “Occasionally I get a bonus.”