Discovering “the best that can come out of you”: Charles Chasela

By Anne McNulty (’11)

September 14, 2010 — Charles Chasela recently received his PhD from University College Dublin. The road to success has been far from easy for Chasela, and he is very proud of his accomplishments. “It has been a long journey, and I have learned that limitations are meant to show us the right way,” Chasela said.

Charles Chasela (left) and Charles van der Horst at Chasela's doctoral graduation ceremony

Growing up in Malawi as the sixth of seven children, Chasela witnessed first-hand the burden of disease on marginalized populations. Malawi is a country plagued by high maternal and infant mortality, as well infectious diseases such as HIV, malaria, TB, and hepatitis. Growing up in this environment, Chasela was motivated from a young age to pursue a career in public health.

Early on, Chasela was singled out as a bright student. Unlike in the United States, children in Malawi do not automatically attend secondary school, but Chasela was among those selected for further education. His grades qualified him to pursue a science degree, but a problem with record-keeping prevented him from doing so.

Disappointed but not discouraged, Chasela took a job with a printing company doing mostly unskilled labor. When he saw an advertisement for clinical officers’ training, he immediately applied and was accepted. Perhaps not surprisingly, his hard work and scientific ability quickly brought him to the top of his class, a trend that would continue throughout his studies.

Chasela went on to train other clinical officers at the Malawi College of Health Sciences in Lilongwe, and his success there led to a scholarship to study health personnel education in Arusha, Tanzania. And then, finally, 13 years after a clerical error kept him from college, Chasela earned a bachelor of science degree from Mzuzu University.

Chasela’s affiliation with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began in July 2001 when he joined UNC Project-Malawi as clinical officer on a large HIV research study. By the time the study concluded in 2003, Chasela was serving as study coordinator.

Faculty at UNC recognized that Chasela could contribute more to improving health for the people of Malawi if he received additional training and education, so UNC funded Chasela to earn a degree in epidemiology through the UNC Fogarty AIDS International Training Program (AITRP). Now in its 11th year, the AITRP supports HIV/AIDS research training for Malawians who work in-country at partner institutions after their training is completed. Chasela attended the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and received his master’s degree in March 2006.

During this time, Chasela continued to work at UNC Project, mostly on the Breastfeeding, Antiretroviral, and Nutritional (BAN) study. In fact, he is lead author of the article in the New England Journal of Medicine describing results from the study, which examined two treatments for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Both treatments were found to be effective.

Chasela clearly enjoyed working on the project. “The outcome was so rewarding,” Chasela said. The results of the BAN study led to a change in the World Health Organization’s official breastfeeding guidelines. “To have results that have their place in the World Health Organization. . .is absolutely amazing,” he said.

As rewarding as the HIV research was, Chasela’s career shifted course following a personal tragedy. “I lost a close friend to hepatitis,” he said. This devastating loss, combined with some promising new research, motivated Chasela to pursue a PhD in epidemiology to study the disease. He attended University College Dublin (UCD) with support from AITRP and a prestigious Ad-Astra scholarship from UCD.

“Charles is a superb clinician and outstanding investigator,” said Charles van der Horst, professor of medicine at UNC and principal investigator of the BAN study. Van der Horst served as one of Chasela’s PhD mentors and flew to Dublin in June to walk in Chasela’s graduation ceremony. “I am so proud of Charles, and I know he will go on to do great things,” van der Horst said.

From here, Chasela plans to work primarily on hepatitis B, C, and E besides perinatal HIV infection. He wants to address the problem of false positives for hepatitis C virus in donated blood in Malawi. “False positives in our region have resulted in about 6 percent of blood from donors being discarded,” Chasela said. Malawi needs 80,000 units of blood per year, but only about 50,000 are available. ”We cannot manage to lose that 6 percent,” he said.

Chasela’s accomplishments are the result of his intelligence and hard work, though he is quick to point out that he has been blessed with strong mentors—particularly at UNC—who have nurtured his career and helped him to succeed. Chasela looks forward to fostering mentor relationships with students and aspiring researchers.

What does Chasela think makes a good mentor? That’s easy. “Someone who sees the best that can come out of you.”

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