A day in the life of Alan Whiteside

International AIDS Society (IAS) treasurer and Governing Council (GC) member

It is impossible to describe a typical working day. My professional life is divided into three distinct parts, each of which helps ensure that no two days are ever the same. The first is the day-to-day running of my research unit, the Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where I am also a professor. The second is my work with the Department for International Development (DFID) in England, and the third is travelling to and attending meetings around the world.

I have been working on HIV issues since 1987. Whilst working on labour migration, I became deeply concerned about the epidemic as I realised that migrants and their families were at high risk of infection and would have to deal with the consequences of HIV in an unsupportive environment. By 1990 HIV was dominating my working life. At the same time as researching and writing extensively on the socio-economic impact of the disease, I ran workshops on planning for HIV and AIDS in the UK, Asia and Africa and published a bimonthly newsletter called AIDS Analysis Africa.

I established HEARD (www.heard.org.za) -- an organization aiming to influence global thinking and action on health and development through applied research -- in 1998. Initially, our work was mainly driven by projects, consultancy work, bids and some core funding. In 2006 we received major funding from a consortium of donors.

In Durban I usually get to my office by 7 am. The early mornings are fantastically clear and cool and I often see monkeys and other wildlife while driving up to the university. Once at the office, my time is divided between administration, meetings, mentoring and providing leadership. We have been extremely fortunate with our donors which, of course, means that we have to make sure that we produce what we have undertaken and comply with the funding and reporting requirements. This keeps us all very busy. About 30 people work at HEARD, a mixture of professionals and support staff, and they all need my time at some point in the day.

An applied research organization must produce top quality scientific outputs and make a concerted effort to disseminate the information to the right people, including peer reviewed journal articles and books. When I am in Durban, I simply do not have the time to carry out research and write. I am fortunate to spend part of every year in the UK with my family. Here, in the time-honoured style of many authors, I have a shed in the garden to which I retreat. Although I speak to my research unit in Durban every day, this time away allows me the important opportunity to write.  I have a 20% appointment as a Senior Research Fellow with DFID and therefore make frequent trips to London.

About two months of the year are spent on the road, attending various meetings around the world as a speaker or as a participant. As treasurer of the International AIDS Society, I spend at least 10 days of the year on International AIDS Society business; this includes attending the International AIDS Conference or the IAS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention, and a GC retreat.

I am also very involved in Swaziland and am a member of the Governing Council of Waterford Kamhlaba United World College.  Fortunately, I do not mind getting on aeroplanes, and I am currently trying to find time to complete a private pilot's licence. As of May 2011 I had managed to achieve about 27 hours of flying time, but one needs at least 46 for the licence. At the moment I have to complete the law exam before I can go solo and that means one thing: studying.

It doesn’t matter where I am, as long as my feet are on the ground I try to end my day by going to a gym and working out for an hour. This, I believe, is what keeps me sane. I like to think my work matters, and the output I am most excited about at the moment is the idea that a population wide month of safe sex across an entire nation could have a measurable impact on HIV incidence. This has been written up with my colleague Justin Parkhurst and is accessible at http://www.heard.org.za/downloads/safe-sex-no-sex-month-could-it-work-article.pdf. What is really exciting is that the idea is being modelled and will be tested soon.

AIDS is a horrible disease and will have a long term impact in my part of the world. I hope that I have made a difference in the way we respond to it. I know that I have been very fortunate in the support I have had from the University and the excellent colleagues, staff and students that I have worked with over the years. I am also proud of what the International AIDS Society has achieved. Having been elected to the GC in 2000 I am one of the longest serving members – and will finish my term at the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) in Washington, DC, in July 2012.

My own website is www.alanwhiteside.com