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The Researcher: Aretha Chakraborti

Aretha Chakraborti hears that inner voice again. It tells her she needs to go back to India.

She spent last summer there as part of her research as a Katherine L. Kriegbaum Scholar on how social hierarchies affect HIV/AIDS treatment, but her visits to a day care for children of prostitutes left the deepest impression.

"These kids, I don't even know what they've seen at age 3," she says. "The fact that they're so happy, and they just want someone to play with, it's so saddeningly beautiful."

Remembering those children reminds Chakraborti of the impact she could have doing on-site research after she graduates.

While studying the social hierarchy of India, Chakraborti, a political science major and global health minor, says she realized how fortunate she was. "So many women in India are oppressed just because of their gender," says Chakraborti, a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Naperville, Ill. "And for me to be able to go to Northwestern and to graduate ... it's unheard of compared to what many Indian women face."

When Chakraborti first came to Northwestern, she wanted to study medicine, but eventually she switched to political science because she saw how the delivery of health care is oftentimes determined by politics rather than doctors.

Even before Chakraborti studied in India, she had spent a year conducting independent research on how social hierarchy in India affects vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and treatment opportunities. For example, because homosexuality is criminalized in India, programs that help bring treatment to HIV/AIDS patients find it difficult to help gays.

"Your gender or your sexual orientation shouldn't make you so much more vulnerable to AIDS," she says. "Who even decides what these categories are? But they can be a death sentence in some situations."

Chakraborti plans to continue her research in India after graduation. She received a Mind the Gap Fellowship, a grant of up to $10,000 for an HIV/AIDS–focused research project from the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern. The fellowship will fund a nine-month research project focused on West Bengal. She hopes to build a web site that connects nongovernmental organizations working in India's red-light districts, creating a safe online space for those organizations to communicate and discuss ways to decrease HIV risk.

Alice Truong (J10)

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