When I was awarded the community scholarship to attend CROI 2023 in Seattle, WA, USA, saying I was excited is an understatement. I had received this scholarship back in 2020 and just as I was on my way to airport, the world shut down, well because of “RONA” I am terrified to say his name out loud he might wake up!! Fast-forward, 2022 I received the scholarship again and before I knew it, the conference announced that it was fully virtual AGAIN! 2023 though, was my year!! I got the chance to attend CROI physically for the first at the conference’s 30th year and I sat at the table of the world’s most excellent and top notch researchers working on HIV science.

With all the excitement I came with, my journey to CROI was no walk in the park. I was cramping and grumpy. My flight was delayed then cancelled which had me miss one of the sessions that I was most excited for, the Opening ceremony at CROI. Though am happy to report, Yvette Raphael really did deliver the most powerful speech, giving researchers and scientist an insight to what Civil Society’s contribution has been towards advancing research and also celebrating women advocates all over the world for their resilience and hard work. As you seen CROI was already powerful even before I got there.

Finally, as I landed in Seattle! I couldn’t help but think of how best I could represent my people and also was very nervous because many people had trusted me and I didn’t want to let them down. The four days of the conference with learning new strategies, new findings and updates about research like vaccines, HIV cure, alternate PrEP agents, long-acting PrEP injectable, antibodies. I was really excited that we got study results from the B-protected study and interim results from the second cohort of the DELIVER study presented at CROI. These results are timely and very important as women need protection against acquiring HIV at all times in their lives, including when breast feeding and pregnant. Also Language researchers use was something that I had to keep conversation on at this “table” and learning that they are working to change the language is something I pledge to follow up on and also hold them accountable. For sure, being listened to by researchers and contributing to the conversation made me feel like I was representing my community very well.

There were times for sure during the conference, when “sitting at this table” got me feeling confused and uncertain of myself, but because I was a part of the community scholar team WhatsApp group which was a place to debrief, learn, share ideas and this allowed me to be in more than one session at the same time as advocates continued the conversation from the session rooms on there. The morning margarita sessions where another really exciting platform to be a part of as they usually started with the jams of deejay Jim. These sessions brought advocates together to discuss and share experiences and strategies on various Health Research issues. My fave session here was on the Data Gap: filling in the missing perspectives on women and children in HIV research. These spaces made me feel worthy of my seat at the table. They kept me informed and engaged throughout the conference.

“Sitting at the table” allowed me to meet great researchers. At the conference I had the pleasure of sitting at the table with Peter Piot, one of the most amazing researchers who have tremendously contributed to the response and imparted the agenda to end HIV. Listening to his journey and work particularly as the first UNAIDS Executive Director, I was motivated to work even hard and smarter. One of my key take away from this conversation is that we need to do more to less politicize the work and focus on the people. we do. Oftentimes researchers come up with cool tools to use in the fight of preventing transmission of HIV, HIV Cure, COVID 19 but if we cannot equitably and timely deliver these cool tools, keep community informed and engaged and tackle human rights violations then we are honestly failing the people we represent.

As I conclude, if you are reading this, any young person out there, it’s important to know that “a seat at the researchers and scientists table” can seem way out of your league but if you set your goals straight you too can have a seat. If I can then I guarantee you can too. We need more young community voices at this table.

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