Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

And the Band Palyed On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

Courtney Malpass's picture
This semester I have learned a lot about biology, from both the book I read and the course itself. I used to think I knew everything because all I ever had to do was memorize some facts and that was the end of it. Upon entering this biology course the first thing I heard was that nothing in science, any branch of science, is absolute. How could science not be absolute? Was everything I had previously learned a lie? I had no idea what to do, so I decided to do what was instructed on the first day of class- throw out everything I learned before and start over.

As the course progressed, I found that it was much easier for me to learn everything over again with a new perspective. I did not have to be right all the time because it was even better to be wrong and then try to find out why I was wrong. But even those words, "right and wrong", held little meaning in this course. The most important thing I learned about biology from the course was that it is not about getting it right, it is about getting it less wrong.

I also learned that human scale is only one form of measurement. I got so used to measuring everything according to my size that when we covered cellular biology, there were times when I could not fathom how something so incredibly small could be responsible for so many processes in my body. I always knew the universe was huge, but I never realized how much of the universe was empty space; this is true for large scales as well as small scales. I also accepted the strange concept of clumpy diversity. Even though it was by far the oddest thing I ever heard in reference to biology, it really made sense to me when explained. When speaking about biology, I now realize that I will never be completely right or completely satisfied with any answers I may come across because there will always be room for new interpretations of both new and old data.

I learned many concepts from the biology course, but not so much about biology being practiced. Sure we did lab experiments to help us better understand some of the ideas we had learned in class but I feel as if we did not really do anything that seemed relevant to today's world of biology. This is where my book comes into play. For my book, I chose to read And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic because I had previously seen the movie and thought the book would be just as interesting. When reading this book, I finally realized just how much control the federal government has over the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more commonly known as the CDC. We had never talked about the roles of the federal government and other scientific organizations like the CDC play when any new disease or discovery involving biology is brought to light. Naturally the first question that came to my mind was this- what control does the federal government have over anything that has to do with biology or any other branch of science for that matter?

Back in the late 1970s when the very first cases of AIDS were first reported in the United States, no one thought much about it because the only common link between the cases was that they were all gay men. Later on, everyone would realize what a huge mistake it was to ignore the horrible epidemic because it only seemed to be affecting a certain group. It was not until the early 1980s, when the infectious disease started spreading within drug users and heterosexual people that anyone, including the government, gave serious consideration to this new epidemic. So what did the federal government have to do with the rise of the AIDS epidemic?

It had more to do with it than one would think. The most shocking thing for me when reading this book was learning that the federal government controls most, if not all, of the possible funding for any scientific research. If the government had paid attention and took the treat seriously when it had first appeared, AIDS might have been stopped before it got to the uncontrollable level that it is at today. I could not believe that the government held so many strings when it came to the CDC. The CDC is responsible for making sure epidemics like AIDS does not happen again; how can they manage that if they do not have all possible funding they would need at their fingertips?

I am glad that read this particular book because it taught me a lot about scientific research in the US. The biology course introduced concepts and ideas for me to think about whereas the book showed me scientific research in action. I believe it was a good combination because just like the course, the book surpassed my expectations. I learned a lot about biology from both sources and I am happy to say that I have warmed up to the idea that nothing is ever truly certain when it comes to biology, or any other branch of science for that matter. However, I am not happy about how much the federal government still controls the CDC, even though it is a governmental organization. I just feel that scientific researchers, in biology or whatever else, should be free of federal protocol in regards to applying for funding when it comes to something serious, like AIDS, that could cause such destruction. The more we learn about biology, the more we might be able to understand what goes on in the world around us and how it all fits together to work. However, as I have learned, no matter how much we learn and discover there will always be something that we will not know. I thought that was scary at first, but now I can live it because knowing everything is overrated; I like to think of it as a very long expedition through the universe that might or might not have the answers we are looking for.