Do Meet Your Heroes

Amelie recounts her memorable experience of meeting Chris Beyrer, an accomplished global health expert, and learning about his impactful work combating infectious diseases, particularly HIV, with a focus on cultural sensitivity and human rights.

It is seldom we have the chance to meet people with careers as meaningful and robust as Chris Beyrer’s. However, the Huang Fellows cohort was lucky enough hear his incredible life story in person– one which led to Beyrer overseeing Duke’s Global Health Institute. After engaging with him in this talk, I can attest that Beyrer is as kind and humorous as he is intelligent and accomplished.

Beyrer completed his MD at the SUNY Health Sciences Center at Brooklyn and his MPH at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. If you knew about his undergraduate career, you might not have predicted either of those degrees. Beyrer’s early fascination with Asian history- specifically that of China and India- led him to major in it. In fact, after graduation, he volunteered abroad in a Tibetan refugee camp. He felt that, as a volunteer, he was not really having the impact he wanted. So, that is when he decided to go back to the U.S. for medical school. Much of his career would still end up taking place in Southeast Asia.

When he attended medical school in Brooklyn, the AIDS epidemic in New York was peaking. He was at a state school, the Reagan administration was not putting money into cities, and they had limited resources. The patients he was assigned to were dying or died because, in the early 80s, HIV was completely untreatable. Because of these experiences, Beyrer wanted to focus on infectious diseases, so he completed an infectious disease fellowship. Most of the fellowship was spent working with HIV, and the rest with vaccines.

“He said that when you start doing this type of work abroad, you get bitten by a bug. You just keep having to go back. And that is what he did, repeatedly.”

After he finished his training, he worked in Thailand, China, Burma, and many other countries. In Thailand, he worked with the HIV outbreak among soldiers. The soldiers responded very well to the science. With Beyrer’s team, they started a condom-based program for the army. This made sense. However, sometimes, Beyrer’s approach to his work was less orthodox. In one country, he saw sex workers filling up the streets at night. He knew this was likely contributing to HIV prevalence there. So, he went to a waiter in a hotel and asked where he could find some sex workers. I did not know where he was going with this story. He actually paid the workers for their time and asked to just talk. Yes, that is right. He sat down with a group of sex workers who were on the clock and just asked them to tell him about their work. It sounds bizarre, but from this he was able to identify a major source of HIV transmission: soldiers having unsafe sex with prostitutes where they were stationed.

In places like Burma, finding the main causes of HIV’s spread was much harder. Helping to combat it neared impossible. They were under military rule and were unwilling to start a response to HIV. This was a social justice and human rights issue. Beyrer saw many cases like this and dedicated much of his life to addressing human rights issues that underly health disparities.

All of these experiences have to make you wonder what made him so dedicated to this work. He said that when you start doing this type of work abroad, you get bitten by a bug. You just keep having to go back. And that is what he did, repeatedly.

I asked him how you can have a career like this without stepping on toes and perpetuating saviorism or voluntourism. He said Thailand’s government invited Hopkins to help them with HIV. Hopkins had helped them with leprosy in the past, and they reached out for help. China and Ethiopia also asked. Helping where your help is not wanted, obviously, is never okay. He also said you must understand that you are not there to change anyone’s way of life. You are providing knowledge to communities that ask for it. You must work with the culture of the people you are working with and understand what that means for the science. It also means you must look for the communities that are affected by these infectious diseases, who are often pushed to the margins. You really must bring everyone into the conversation. This is critical if you are working in a field like his.

His impact lies not only in the countries he did work in. When he was at Hopkins, Beyrer took over the International AIDS Training and Research Program, which was focused mostly in Africa. He also started the Center for AIDS Research and a Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

Now that he is at Duke, he has a few things in mind for the future. His current research is looking at five major cities in the South that have the highest HIV rates today. Most of the cases are Black and Hispanic gay and bisexual men. He would also like to see Duke open a Department of Epidemiology and launch a DrPH program.

The impact Beyrer had on infectious diseases around the world is incredible. It is a career many of us only dream of having. Although he is a man of huge success, he is humble and kind. He has a great deal of interest in answering student questions and improving the experience of Global Health students at Duke. If you have not had a chance to meet him or are hesitant to reach out, I promise, he does not bite. Meeting Chris Beyrer will be a memorable experience.

Amelie Finn, Huang Fellow ’26

Vivian AppleAmelie is a first-year undergraduate from Houston, Texas intending to major in Neuroscience with a Global Health co-major on the pre-med track. I hope to also complete a certificate in Science and the Public.