Alumna uses physics to bring hope to AIDS victims

April 14, 2014 | 11 a.m.

Amy Herman-Roloff fights the AIDS/HIV epidemic in Zimbabwe

Culture | Rachel Wilson


Alumna Amy Herman-Roloff lives in Zimbabwe, where she works as the chief science officer at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Amy Herman-Roloff

For many Americans, the AIDS epidemic in Africa is a shocking reality—a true testament to the evil in our world. Even so, the epidemic is often removed reality—a distant idea with little impact in the daily lives of most Westerners. However, for Bethel alumna Amy Herman-Roloff, the AIDS/HIV epidemic is part of her daily reality.

Herman-Roloff graduated from Bethel in 2000 with a double major in physics and English literature and writing, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she works as the chief science officer at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the last eight years, Herman-Roloff has tended daily to the burdens of the deprived, destitute and disadvantaged in Africa. 

“As Christians, we have the opportunity to alleviate a piece of the burden of HIV by walking with people and not judging them, by showing our love for them as a child of God in real and practical ways,” she said. “We are given God-inspired words of encouragement, acceptance and love to share with hurting people.” 

Having received a master’s in epidemiology from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Herman-Roloff specializes in HIV prevention research. Since studying abroad at Daystar University during her time at Bethel, Herman-Roloff’s heart has been in Africa.

“I was hooked and knew that God was calling me to spend a significant portion of my life here,” she said. “In many ways, it’s home.” 

Herman-Roloff focuses on prevention of mother to child transmission and male circumcision as it pertains to HIV prevention. As “operational research,” Herman-Roloff explores how programs are being executed and how the CDC can advance HIV prevention programs.

Her research is seeing significant social impact. 

“Male circumcision for HIV prevention is one of the newest and most effective prevention strategies for HIV prevention among heterosexual men,” she said.

In 2006 and 2007, randomized trials were held to evaluate the strategy. Results showed that the operation reduced heterosexual males’ probability of acquiring HIV by at least 60 percent.

The challenge of living and researching in a developing country is figuring out how to implement such prevention strategies with such insufficient resources.

Herman-Roloff’s work in Kenya explored the effectiveness of various circumcision delivery methods and which level of healthcare workers should be allowed to perform the operation. She also researched the cultural tolerability of the operation.

Amid a scarcity of healthcare professionals, Herman-Roloff’s findings proved monumental. 

“The findings from my work allowed nurses to be able to provide the service legally in Kenya,” she said. “And Kenya has almost reached its target of circumcising 860,000 men in the past five years…since now both nurses and doctors can provide the service.” 

Herman-Roloff also dedicates her time and expertise to female sex workers and other “key populations” in the HIV epidemic. Abused, discriminated and marginalized, it’s nearly impossible for these women to access health services. 

Herman-Roloff studies to whom, how and why these young women submit to sex as a means to make a living. 

“There are a surprisingly high number of 12 to 14-year-olds,” she said, explaining that her work goes on to develop prevention programs and the availability of health services to female sex workers.

For Herman-Roloff, her work hits close to home. She and her husband’s two daughters, Keza and Shela, were both adopted after being born in Africa and abandoned soon thereafter. Even more devastatingly, one of her daughters was born in a field.

“This lack of access to health services for my child’s birth mother motivates me to continue to learn how we can provide quality health services that are accessible to the poor and marginalized,” Herman-Roloff said.

Science has opened up a world of opportunities for Herman-Roloff. 

“Science has allowed me to not only explore intellectually and professionally…but also to explore a beautiful part of the world that I now consider home.” 


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