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The NS Interview: Precious Lunga, epidemiologist

“When I say I’m a scientist, you can see people blinking.”

Do you ever feel in a strange position because you're a woman in a male-dominated field?
It's more the reaction of other people. When I say, "I'm a scientist," you can see them blinking. I did an outreach event at a school in Camden, where I dressed up as a scientist and explained the whole point of science and a girl said to me, "Wow -- you're a woman and you're a scientist!" And that's in London.

How did you get involved in Aids research?
In a roundabout way, because I trained as a neuroscientist. I enjoyed it and yet there was always a niggle that I wanted to interact with women and children and be out in the field.

So what's your job description now?
I'm an epidemiologist, working as a consultant for a children's foundation.

You've been involved with antimicrobial gels to combat HIV. Why are they important?
It's almost a kind of chemical condom that will allow women to protect themselves against HIV but also keep options open for them. So if they want to have babies they could do so with far less risk of catching HIV, because most women catch HIV in long-term relationships and they can't always negotiate condom use. It gives women that agency in their lives.

And when you talk about your fieldwork, which countries have you been to?
Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique. I've done a lot of work in South Africa. That's where the burden, the bulk, of the epidemic is.

What's that experience like?
You don't get that many African women travelling around on their own, staying in hotels, so people often come up to me and ask me what I'm doing. I went through Johannesburg [airport] so often that I got to know some of the people there. There was a woman and I told her what I do. I noticed she didn't look very well. She said: "I have a friend who might have HIV. Is it true people die of that?" I said yes but it doesn't need to happen now; tell your friend to go to the hospital for drugs. A couple of months later, I walked through the airport and saw her and she looked so well. We had this interaction and I just hugged her. It was as if I knew her.

Because presumably the drugs were for her?
Yeah, it was a way of having the conversation with her. And when you see that, you see the fruits of the research.

Did any other individuals you met stand out?
The community stood out. You ask the women why they do this and they come out with all sorts of reasons. One of them might say: "I'm doing it for my sisters and my children."

Why are we so bad at dealing with Aids?
It requires a lot of commitment. It requires an investment. It goes beyond an election term. The time and effort haven't quite matched up to the scale of the problem.

Have we avoided an "Aids epidemic" by making HIV manageable rather than fatal?
There are countries such as Zimbabwe, which is where I'm from, where you can see declines in the epidemic because fewer people are getting [infected]; more people are getting treatment. But we can treat HIV yet we can't cure it. We need to find new methods of prevention.

What was life like in Zimbabwe?
I grew up there until I was 17, then I came to the UK to do my studies and I stayed. I went to a convent school; most girls didn't do science. When I was at school, I loved history and all these other subjects. I remember one of the nuns saying to me, "You're good at science, so you must do science." And my parents always encouraged me.

How is the situation in Zimbabwe now?
Things are in flux. People are hopeful that it will get better. In terms of HIV, I think it's a good sign that fewer people are dying than five years ago but it's anybody's guess what's going to happen next.

Since your marriage to the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow, has the focus on your personal life overshadowed your work?
Only in the past year, because if you'd googled me ten months ago, you'd have seen all my professional stuff. But when I'm interacting with people, it doesn't come up. Perhaps they're all very polite and don't mention it. I don't google myself so I don't know.

Will you always be a scientist?
Yes, but what sort of science I'll be doing in ten years' time, I don't know.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Loads. But when you try to forget something, you remember it.

Are we all doomed?
No. Saying we're all doomed is fatalistic and, by nature, I'm an interventionist. If I think something is not going well, there must be a way of fixing it: that's my approach to life.

Defining Moments

1974 Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
1998 Gains first-class degree in neuroscience at Edinburgh University
2003 Is awarded PhD in neuroscience at Cambridge University, where she captained the women's karate team
2005 Starts work for the Medical Research Council, focusing on HIV/Aids
2008 Becomes a Yale World Fellow
2011 Joins the Children's Investment Fund Foundation

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State