By Mat Sommers
The story begins back when I was in high school. I remember reading a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that has stuck with me to this day: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children… to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
This notion of success still continues to define my trajectory. But as a child, it was too much to digest. How could I possibly go about leaving the world a better place? I wasn’t able to begin to answer this question for myself until much later.
When I moved away to college, I had just recently come out of the closet and was determined to dive into everything gay culture had to offer. It was only months after moving to Boulder that I found myself at the Mountain Sun taking a survey for Boulder County AIDS Project alongside peers that would soon become my best friends. The survey was administered by Atlas, and the questions were all focused around the behaviors and perceptions of gay men in Boulder and ultimately related back to HIV. At this time I knew virtually nothing about HIV other than that you could get it from having sex and doing drugs, and that a lot of gay men in big cities died because of it in the 80’s. But what did I really have to worry about?
Curious to learn more, I began volunteering for Atlas, which undoubtedly changed my life forever. Simultaneously, my mind was being shaped to think like a scientist and I was hungry for knowledge and discovery.
Shortly thereafter, everything changed for me. All of the information I acquired quickly went from being theoretical and seemingly isolated in history to crashing into my living room. My friend stared me in the face with fear in his eyes and said what I hoped couldn’t be true, “The test was positive—I have HIV.”
I was devastated. How could this happen to someone I love? Someone who knew everything I knew. What does it even mean? It all became so much more complicated than I had realized. I needed to learn more, but what I knew then was that this would shape my decisions for the rest of my life. I knew then that this wouldn’t be the last time I heard this news from a friend or potentially a lover. I knew then that HIV wasn’t over.
I researched everything I could, from the origin of HIV to how it spread across the world… including transmission, treatment, the evolution of resistance… and perhaps most profound to me the history of HIV and its discovery in San Francisco. I began talking to people and listening to their stories. I heard stories of loss and desperation, but also of compassion, perseverance, and love. Through these stories I gained the utmost respect for the generations before mine that paved the way to where we are today in the fight against HIV.
Toward the end of my time in Colorado, I began to realize that everything I was passionate about could be connected. I realized that my intrigue of cultural diversity and the gay rights movement was inseparable from the HIV epidemic. Further, it was through research that we were able to understand what actually caused AIDS, and that researchers today are making groundbreaking discoveries that continue to clarify and overcome the obstacles that exist. My next step was clear. There was only one place that would continue to foster my passion and allow for more discovery. I moved to San Francisco.
I reached San Francisco with nothing but my car, what I could fit in it, and hope. It was a city devoid of friends, but in my mind abundant with opportunity. I knew I was where I needed to be. I applied to every organization, government agency, university, and foundation that was doing work remotely related to HIV and science. Finally, I heard back from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and was offered a Lab Tech position at their program, Magnet, an HIV and STI clinic for gay, bisexual, and transgender men in the Castro.
So this brings us to today. I’m working for one of the most pioneering and influential nonprofit organizations in the fight against HIV. I’m soaking up all the information I possibly can and working alongside some of the most compassionate and inspiring professionals in this field. Soon, I’ll be applying for a graduate program in Quantitative Genetics and Genomic Analysis in Scotland. I hope to study under researchers in Edinburgh investigating the evolution of HIV. While the details of the future remain uncertain, I am confident that regardless of the outcome, my trajectory will inevitably be focused by what you have just read. I know now that through this work I just might be able to leave the world a little better place.