Tag Archives: HIV/AIDS

New plans and new HIV stories

3 Jan

I love making plans and I love the beginning of the new year and the new semester. I actually think that the yearly rhythm of semesters and breaks is a huge benefit of being in academia.

Today I spent some time thinking about the writing I plan to do in the coming semester and the talks I will be giving in the near future. The first talk that’s coming up is an invited talk at Stanford. I am very honored to be an invited speaker at the CEHG symposium alongside Anne Stone (ASU) and Graham Coop (UC Davis). I want to try and use the opportunity of the talk to think about what stories I want to tell and I plan to write the story up for publication in addition to talking about it at Stanford.

So what are the stories I want to tell? There are many! But here are some thoughts:

“The evolution of HIV evolution.”

Recently I’ve given seminars in which the overarching storyline was “The evolution of HIV evolution.” I focused on the evolution of drug resistance within patients and explained how drug resistance evolution used to be very fast, but became slower over time. When people were treated with a single drug (AZT) in the late 80s and early 90s, the virus would evolve drug resistance very quickly and the treatment would quickly become useless. Freddy Mercury probably died because of a very fast evolving virus. Over time, treatments improved (using combinations of drugs and using better drugs) such that it became harder for the virus to evolve and nowadays, drug resistance evolution is so slow in patients on treatment, that it is no longer a big worry, and people can stay on the same drugs for many years.

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 12.45.01 PM

A slide from a talk I gave at SMBE and ESEB in the summer of 2017.

“HIV does it all”

Here is another storyline. Any field in science needs some systems that are looked at in detail. In evolutionary genetics, these systems are fruitflies, yeast, humans, mice etc. HIV is a great system as well in part because we know so much about it and data is abundant. One of the things we have learned in recent years, thanks to work by people like Richard Neher and Kathryna Lythgoe, is that HIV evolution can surprise us again and again. For example, HIV evolution, even in absence of drugs, can be fast within patients and slow at the epidemic level. It can be happening with a lot of recombination, or showing clonal interference (unpublished, Kadie-Ann Williams and PSP), and sweeps can be hard or soft. Within host populations can be panmictic or structured. So if everything can happen, how can we make sense of this all?

“Drugs to prevent HIV”

I like the story of how drugs were and are used to prevent HIV infection. In the 90s and well into the 2000s, drugs were used to prevent mother-to-child-transmission of the virus during child birth. In fact, this was one of the big successes in the world of HIV before treatment was really working to keep infected people alive. Nowadays, drugs are available for HIV-negative people who are at increased risk of HIV infection. Pre-exposure-prophylaxis (Prep, marketed as Truvada) is probably contributing to the shrinking of the HIV epidemic in San Francisco as many of the HIV-negative gay men in the city are taking Prep. When drugs were used to save babies, they were uncontroversial, but when they are used to save gay men, they continue to be controversial and there are many places where Prep is not available (for example, in my home country, The Netherlands).

How is this story linked to evolutionary genetics? When someone is taking drugs to prevent HIV, but they end up getting infected anyways, there may be a high risk of drug resistance evolution (this happened in the babies, in their already infected mothers, and it is happening occasionally in Prep users). Also, at an epidemic level, if a large part of the population is on Prep, this may lead to sub-epidemics of drug-resistant viral strains. There is some interesting modeling work by Sally Blower on these questions.


OK, that’s enough brainstorming for today. I’ll develop one of these stories into a presentation for CEHG and for an article to be published somewhere. If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know!



Working with a speaking coach

11 Jun

Recently I had an important talk to prepare and I was considering hiring someone who could help me to work on my talk when, at a party, I was introduced to a speaking coach! It turned out that professional speaking and communications coach Ellen A. Kaye, is located in Silicon Valley and was excited to work with a Stanford scientist. Ellen and I decided to work together.

Ellen graduated from Stanford, then worked as an actress in New York City and has been running her own business (Prefect Presentation® Inc) as a speaking coach since many years [*]. Working with her really helped!

Nerd Nite: fun-yet-intellectual talks while the audience drinks along

Nerd Nite poster

Nerd Nite poster

The talk I was preparing was for Nerd Nite SF. Nerd Nites exist in many cities. Wikipedia explains that Nerd Nite “is an event usually held at a bar or venue during which individuals present on a topic of personal interest or expertise in a fun-yet-intellectual format while the audience drinks along.”

I’ve been to Nerd Nite in Cambridge (Mass) and in San Francisco and both were a lot of fun, so when I was asked to speak at Nerd Nite, I was thrilled! Nerd Nite San Francisco always has good speakers and it is often sold out (with more than 250 people in the audience!).

I needed to prepare an 18 minute talk that was going to be “fun-yet-intellectual,” which is hard! Simplify too much and people won’t learn anything (or worse, they’ll misunderstand and learn things that are not true). Make it too scientific and people will get bored and go back to their conversations. “Fun” in itself is hard. I’ve never been comfortable preparing jokes for talks … although I sometimes end up making jokes once I am on stage.

Working with speaking coach Ellen A. Kaye was extremely helpful

Getting Ellen’s coaching was extremely helpful for many reasons. First, Ellen knows a lot about speaking and storytelling and working with an audience. Second, Ellen knew how to help me write and present scientific-yet-fun speech so that I had the right level of complexity and entertainment value for this specific audience and venue.

If you ever need to prepare an important talk, I very much recommend you work with a speaking coach. And if you’re in the area, Ellen would be a great choice! I really got a lot out of it. I felt much more confident and was much better prepared after working with Ellen.

Here are just a few of her suggestions that helped me a lot:

Ellen’s tips and ideas about the content of my talk

1. Simplify, prioritize, organize!

Just like everyone else, I always want to tell too many things in too little time. There is so much cool stuff to say about HIV treatments! As the speaker, it is so hard to decide what to keep and what to cut. Ellen helped me reorganize, cut, and edit my speech so it was in the best order to be most impactful, informative, captivating, and entertaining. This was extremely helpful.

2. Summarize your speech at the beginning and at the end.

Ellen explained that to captivate and hold an audience’s attention, it is best to provide them with a brief summary of what you are going to say, right at the beginning of your speech. Like the abstract of a paper. This way the audience feels engaged in the speech and it is easier for them to follow.

Ellen also helped me to find ways to combine bad news with good news, so that the talk wouldn’t become too dark. Early in my original talk, I wanted to say something about how devastating the HIV/AIDS epidemic was in San Francisco (an incredible 19,000 people died of HIV/AIDS in a city of 800,000). However, I did not plan to mention -until the end of the speech- that the good news is that with significant scientific improvements, people can now live a long and healthy life even if they are HIV positive. Ellen had me combine both messages right up front. After that, I went into the research and details.

Ellen’s tips and ideas about presentation 

1. Speak slowly and with emphasis, especially when introducing new words or concepts.

This is true for both native speakers and foreigners like me. I still have my Dutch accent and sometimes I mumble. It was very important to make sure everyone in the audience understood me clearly.

Ellen was great at helping me realize what information, phrases, jargon and new concepts I should say slowly, and even repeat for emphasis, so my speech would be understood and appreciated by my audience. I know that Ellen’s efforts here really paid off because the audience paid attention throughout my talk and there were lots of questions.

2. Make your verbal and non-verbal communication congruent.  

This is hard to explain in a written blog post, but I am pretty sure you understand what I mean. Ellen explained that my verbal communication needs to match my non-verbal communication (body language and eyes) to make the most powerful and memorable impact.

Ellen was a professionally trained, working actress in New York City, so she knows what she’s talking about! She made me practice specific sentences and helped me find the right way to say things. This felt a little awkward at first, but it really helped to be clear and understandable and tell an exciting story.

Ellen’s Free Offer to Coach You 

As a special favor to my readers, Ellen is offering a great deal of 30 minutes free consultation to the first 20 people who contact her at Ellen@EllenKaye.com or 650-963-9874.

I recommend you take advantage of this great offer and I strongly recommend getting Ellen’s professional coaching. I got a lot out of it.


[*] Ellen A. Kaye founded Perfect Presentation® Inc, a multi-faceted speaking and coaching firm in 1994, which relocated to Silicon Valley in 2011. Ellen has coached clients for speeches and pitches to a US President, universities, keynote addresses; appearances on: CNN, The View with Barbara Walters, Fox Channel, Ted Koppel’s Nightline, national radio talk shows, IPO & VC pitches, sales presentations, PHD orals, interviews, meetings, civic speeches, and much more. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, Entrepreneurs and startups. After graduating from Stanford University, Ellen was a professionally trained actress in New York City working on stage and TV.