Mason PhD student is changing how the world views HIV/AIDS

woman leaning on a railing
Gifty Mensah. Photo by Sierra Guard/Creative Services

George Mason University doctoral student Gifty Mensah lived in Ghana until she was 14. It was common to see people there die from preventable diseases such as HIV/AIDS due to a lack of medical resources.

HIV has killed more than 36 million people worldwide since 1981. While the disease can be controlled by modern-day antiretroviral medications, the majority of people with HIV live in developing and moderate-income nations, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, and may lack access to those treatments.

“I was always asking ‘How did this happen?’ and there weren’t any answers,” said Mensah, who is pursuing a PhD in biosciences with a concentration in cell and molecular biology. “I wanted a career in science or medicine to see if I could help address this deadly disease because what was happening wasn’t right.”

Mensah is now in a place where she can make a difference by studying extracellular vesicles, which carry substances in and out of the cell, serving as a snapshot of what is happening in that particular cell.

“Although great strides have been made in the fight against HIV-1 such as the development of antiretrovirals, there is still room for improvement,” said Professor Fatah Kashanchi, Mensah’s advisor and virology director of Mason's Laboratory of Molecular Virology. “The goal of Gifty’s research is to find the mechanisms extracellular vesicles utilize in altering the course of infection for the worse, and ultimately discover therapeutic approaches of mitigating this process.”

While she worked on her bachelor’s degree in biology at Mason, Mensah was a research intern and clinical technician at Inova Fairfax Hospital. She then pursued her master’s degree in microbiology, with a particular interest in the therapeutics of HIV, while simultaneously working as a medical technologist at Quest Diagnostics. It was during these years that Mensah realized the tangible impact of research.

She struggled with choosing between continuing her research and how to pay for the program.

She decided to apply to the PhD program anyway. That’s when she read about the Graduate Inclusion and Access (GIA) Scholarship program, a highly competitive scholarship for first-generation college students from underrepresented populations within their doctoral field of study at Mason.

“Chances are if not for the GIA program, I would not have been able to pursue my PhD,” she said. “Maybe later down the line, but this was a sure way in. I feel so humbled to have been given this opportunity… it’s changed my life.”

“I find Gifty’s journey to be an inspiration and envision that she will be a strong role model for all of our incoming GIA scholars, and especially women from historically underrepresented backgrounds who may want to pursue a doctoral degree in STEM,” said Associate Provost of Graduate Education Laurence Bray. “It has been such a privilege to see her grow as a student, a researcher, and a person. I cannot wait to celebrate her and her accomplishments as she becomes our first GIA scholar graduate later this year.”

Three years into her PhD and only months to go before she completes her research, Mensah has spent countless hours in the laboratory identifying HIV mutations and searching for  diagnostics and therapeutics that could improve existing therapies. She is on six publications that cover topics such as HIV-1 latency, exosomes, HTLV-1 infection leading to Adult T-cell leukemia, and COVID-19 research.

“I am almost at the finish line,” she said. “I started my education with a basic interest in science and along the way I found a path. I’m now in an intense program and it hasn’t been easy. However, I firmly believe 1,000% in what I am doing.”

Women of color make up less than 5% of the STEM workforce, something Mensah is determined to change. There is one person in particular she hopes her work will impact and  inspire: her 22-month old daughter, who was born during the early days of the pandemic.

“As a little girl, I was expected to get married early and have kids. What I have done and achieved is not typical where I come from, but it is my hope that it will soon be,” she said. “I want to serve as role model for girls and let them know that just because they are women of color doesn’t mean they can’t be exposed to amazing things and work with brilliant minds.”