Summer 2011 /Birth & Death/

8 minutes & 28 seconds with Bill Gates

Danny Low ’11 gets his big chance to present his research findings to the tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist.

Bill Gates, the tech entrepreneur turned global health and education philanthropist, fielded questions before a full-house crowd of about 2,400 people in Bridges Auditorium in March as part of this year’s Pomona College Distinguished Speakers Series, established by a gift from the Broe family, and Harvey Mudd College’s Annenberg Speakers Series. Before the big event, he also met with students from Pomona and Harvey Mudd in smaller settings.

Danny Low ’11 was all set. He had practiced his presentation at least 10 times, made the last-minute switch to a more conservative tie and had just finished a try-to-relax lunch with a friend. And, then, shortly before Bill Gates entered the room, Low learned he would go fifth among the six students there to present their research to the Microsoft co-founder during his visit to campus. Low tried to tune in as his peers presented their findings on everything from laser-driven fusion to thin-film solar cells, but, really, he didn’t absorb anything they said.

Finally, Low was up. He thrust out his hand and introduced himself to Gates, who wore a checkered shirt, sans tie or jacket, along with an engaged-but-informal manner. Low, who had a copy of his C.V. handy—you know, just in case—found his nerves quickly faded as he began to explain his work. He crisply laid out how he had first gone to Tanzania in 2009 to work with a charitable group doing HIV/AIDS education in rural areas. “After a few months, I really became hooked on global health [work]—that’s what I want to do,” he told Gates, adding that the Tanzania project led to his next opportunity, this time doing tuberculosis research in neighboring Kenya.

With his arms folded and his fingers stroking his chin, Gates scrutinized Low’s research poster as the anthropology major presented his counter-intuitive results, which showed patients at a Mombasa hospital who tested negative for tuberculosis actually had worse outcomes. Low also told how he went back to Tanzania with a grant to train student leaders to teach their peers about HIV/AIDS education, but when the time came for questions, Gates zeroed in on the TB research.

“They had a negative sputum smear but then they were put on TB treatment?” Gates asked. Low replied that there often aren’t great diagnostic tools for TB in Kenya and sometimes people are treated based purely on symptoms. Gates pressed again: “It’s hard to think why a negative sputum smear would be associated with worse” outcomes. Again, Low was ready, explaining that it may be a matter of misdiagnosis: those with negative smears are still being treated for TB, but perhaps they really have something else that is going untreated. Or maybe patients truly do have TB, but the negative test result delays treatment, leading to more problems. Or it could be that people with HIV co-infection, a common situation, may show more diffuse symptoms that lead to negative test results.

Gates eventually moved on to ask whether Low had encountered many other Americans working in healthcare in East Africa—the answer, simply put, was “no”—and then he summed up Low’s work as “fantastic.” Low never did find the right moment to hand off his C.V., but meeting Gates left him with a college experience to remember. “He’s changed the way we live our lives probably more than any person I’ll meet in my life,” says Low. —Mark Kendall