Cornell opens the door

09 June 2008

Leading the way: Morna Cornell had no undergraduate qualification when she first came to UCT, but will graduate with a Master's in Public Health (Epidemiology), with distinction, this week.

After finishing school, Morna Cornell hopped from job to job searching for a career that would be "meaningful". Then, 16 years ago, she landed employment in the field of HIV/AIDS.

Cornell worked as director of the AIDS Consortium, a network of over 600 HIV/AIDS organisations, and was a founder member of the Treatment Action Campaign, among many other initiatives.

"Till then, I didn't take my work seriously because I wasn't happy with what I was doing," she says. "In HIV/AIDS, I found my passion."

In 2001, Cornell co-authored the book AIDS in Context, based on 90 diverse papers from a conference held the previous year.

"The book is about what it means to be a man or woman in South Africa, and how this affects your behaviour and ability to respond to HIV," she says.

The next few years saw Cornell managing a further number of collaborative HIV/AIDS research projects. She developed an interest in public health and decided to take up formal studies in the field.

Despite her lack of formal undergraduate qualification, she was allowed to register for non-degree purposes.

"Prof Rodney Ehrlich (head of the School of Public Health) said that if I excelled in my first year, he would argue for this to be converted to a full degree."

Ehrlich was as good as his word and Cornell became the first person in the department to be accepted for a master's degree with no undergraduate qualification.

This week, Cornell graduates with a distinction for her master's in public health, her thesis dealing with gender and mortality among HIV-infected individuals at an antiretroviral clinic in Gugulethu.

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