Tuesday, December 5, 2017


I crawled out of my mosquito net before the sun.  I put on my clothes in the dark and walked through the damp grass to the Land Cruiser that was parked outside waiting for me.  I had been living and working in Uganda for 17 months trying to improve babies’ access to vaccines.  For the last month I had been in Kitgum, a rural district in Northern Uganda.  For a decade, Kitgum was slaughtered and tortured by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.  It had been 14 years since the massacre but you could still see the trauma resting heavy in everyone’s eyes.

The longer I stayed in Kitgum the more I could see its ghosts.

I was 26, as new to Uganda as I was to myself.  What kind of woman do I want to be?  Why do I keep moving so damn far away from home?  Where am I going?  These questions sat in my throat.  I was hoping I would find the answers, like big road signs, down one of those dirt roads.

My translator Terrence was waiting for me in the car and sleepily smiled at me as I slid into the passenger seat.    It was barely 5 am when we drove off down the dark, dirt roads.  The windows were cracked and the cool, moonlit air started to blow the sleep from my eyes.  Today I was joining a woman who would be walking the 4 hours to the nearest clinic to get her baby vaccinated.  As part of my research, I wanted to find out what motivated her to travel such a long distance, why she felt vaccinations were so important.  Maybe I could learn a little bit more about why so many of these children were dying of diseases medicine had cured.

It was early but Kitgum was already very much awake.  The red glow of morning breakfast fires dotted the mountainside.  An hour into the ride, Terrence pulled over next to a narrow path that cut through grass taller than me.  A group of motorcycles waited near the entrance to take passengers to the villages that were deep in the bush.  I tucked my skirt between my legs and got on the back of one motorcycle and Terrence got on the back of the other.  My driver wore a cutoff denim jacket and cool guy sunglasses.  He liked to make sharp turns to try and scare me.  But I hadn’t had coffee and was more pissed off than scared.  I hit him in the back of the head with my purse and told him to knock it off or I wouldn’t pay him.  We passed circular villages of mud huts with straw roofs and men playing dice under mango trees.  But we kept going, further and further.  After we had been winding down roads for half an hour, we turned off into a cluster of huts that sat before a large field of potatoes and cassava.  Terrence walked up to a woman, the mother of the household, who was bent over in half sweeping the area in front of her hut. 

“Afoyo!” “Ti mabe?”

“Bey” she said standing up to shake his hand. 

Terrence told me that her name was Florence.

Florence tied her little baby to her back with a large scarf and then tied a callabus, a dried pumpkin shell, over the baby’s head to protect him from the sun.  It looked like a little turtle shell.  A baby hunchback.  A reverse baby bump.  The motorcycles had already left to meet us at the clinic and we set off walking with Florence down the path we had just come.

Florence walked fast.  Terrance and her talked Acholi for a while before I burst in with my questions. 
I learned Rwo, the baby on Florence’s back, was her 10th child but that only 6 had survived.  At 14 she got married to a boy in the next village.  She became pregnant with his baby.  When the Lord’s Resistance Army came to her village she saw her brother killed.  And then she was captured, ripped away from her family and husband and made the “wife” of one of the soldiers. 

Florence would talk for a while in the loping Acholi dialect and then Terrence would translate her words for me.  No part of me was prepared for her story.  Her words knocked the wind out of me and left my hands shaking.  I gave up writing.  I recorded her story on my phone.

She told me how he raped her every night.  How he forced her to take pills to end her pregnancy.  How she was supposed to be bathing in the river when she ran away.  How she wasn’t sure if her baby was dead inside of her but she kept running for the both of them.

Florence didn’t stop walking. Flies tried to balance on little Rwo’s forehead but couldn’t because his mother was walking too fast.  Florence didn’t cry or even stop to look at my reaction.  She just kept on walking.  For the next few hours we were quiet, walking to the rhythm our footsteps. 

I had no more questions.

The tall grasses grew into a jungle and then shrank back down into tall grasses.  I could see her, a 14 year old girl with a swollen belly running just ahead of me.  At 14, I was running around Brooklyn trying not to get caught in games of Hide and Seek. 

Florence said hi to the women who passed us, tall women with babies on their back and large bundles balanced on their head. 

Four hours of walking and we reached the clinic.  A long line of women and their babies already waited under the tree outside.   

“Do you see why I walk this far?” Florence asked through Terrence.  “My baby will survive.”
I tried not to think about the rich mothers in California who elect not to have their babies vaccinated.  

Florence untied the scarf from her back and laid it down in the grass.  Rwo laid on the scarf next to other babies under the tree. I squished his plump little cheeks and sat with Florence for three hours until the nurse could see her.  Rwo received some vaccines but the clinic was missing one of the vaccines in his series and Florence would have to walk four hours to and from the clinic again in a few days to see if it was in stock again. 

I paid for a motorcycle to take Florence and baby Rwo back to their house and hugged them goodbye.  When I could no longer see their motorcycle, I felt relieved.  And then guilty for being relieved.

I got on the back of the bike of Cool Glasses and we drove to the car.  We passed back through the villages and the jungles and the tall grasses.  We passed the women with the heavy sacks on their heads and the babies strapped to their backs.  Cool Glasses turned on his portable radio. 

“I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers cannot deny…”

We passed a wooden cross that marked a mass grave.

I returned to my hotel and stood in the shower watching the red dirt from the walk circle off my body and down the drain. 

That day I stopped looking for answers down windy dirt roads and just kept going. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Best Pizza in NY According to Me and Science

I often get the question, “You’re a New Yorker, AND you’re Italian!  You’ll know where I can get the best pizza!”

They’re right.  I do.

But I’m going to do better than just telling you the best pizza.  I am going to quantify the quality of the pie and present to you not just another Buzzfeed ranking but rather a calculated list of mathematically undeniable excellence.

2 days.  2 judges.  9 pizza parlors.  4 ranking categories.

The 4 Categories:
1)      Sauce: A good sauce is the single most important part of the pizza.  It needs to taste fresh, and juicy but thick enough to differentiate it from pasta sauce.  It needs to be light, not weighed down with spices.    When you eat a good pizza sauce you should feel like you’re being hugged by grandma.
2)      Cheese: When you bite into a good piece of mozzarella it should squeak against your teeth.  It should puddle slightly with delicious oil and the stretch of cheese from slice to face should be long and unwieldy. 
3)      Crust:  When you hold the slice up by the crust end, it shouldn’t flop down.  No one likes a floppy pizza.  The crust should be supportive, crunchy and make your pizza stand erect.
4)      Ratio:  Do you have a bunch of cheese on a crust?  Then you have yourself a flat bread, not a pizza.  Are you swimming in sauce?  Well that’s kinda nice but it’s not right.  Ratio is important.

And those are the categories.  Each category is ranked 1-5 (5 being the highest) for a total score out of 20.  Scores were averaged between the two judges to come up with the below, statistically significant pizza ranking:

#9: Di Fara:
Some people are going to hate me for ranking Di Fara last.  But I don’t care because I have science and math on my side.  #9.  There’s  a stupid long line because this place is “Old school.” But let me tell you something.  This pizza scored a 5/20. A 1 on each category.  25%.  F. 
 A slice is a whopping $5. Their schtick is that every pie is made by the old man that started the place.  Which is cute, but he forgot how to make pizza.  Take a look at my picture below.  Oily, grey slice.  Sauce is barely there and suffocated by oil anyway so you can’t taste it.  Cheese tastes like plastic. Crust is a SIN. 

Grey Di Fara's Pizza

Here is a picture of me outside of Di Fara eating Totonno’s because (spoiler) Totonno’s ranked much higher.

Eating Totonno's outside Di Fara

#8) Tavola:
Tavola on 9th and 37th is dressed up to look like an old Italian grocery store.  It is a sit-down trattoria that serves whole pies.  Now let’s get something straight, there are sit down, wood burning stove pies, and there are slices.  I realize there is a difference and I am ranking both on the same list.  Moving on…

This pizza did not rank so well.  It scored an 11/20 (55%).  Its main downfall is that it really just wasn’t New York enough.  The sauce and cheese both ranked a 2 ratio 3, and the crunchy crust did better with a 4.  But alas, the crust did not save it as pizza is not bread.



Tavola Pizza

#7) Roberta’s:
Oh Roberta’s you hipster daughter you.  If I could subtract points for a tiki bar and too many mason jars I would.  But I will not.  Because that’s not science.
Roberta’s scored 12/20 (60%) and had a very decent pie.  (Keep in mind we scored all these against each other so Roberta’s is not 60% of all NY pizzas but rather 60% compared to other places on this list).  Sauce was too oniony so ranked a 2.  Crust was decent at a 3, ratio could have used more sauce so also a 3, and the mozz was really quite squeaky so got a 4.  I do have to admit that in addition to their regular, I tried their “Bee Sting”: tomato sauce, mozz, sopressata, chili and honey.  It was (gesture with kissing fingers and then raising them to heaven in that Italian way).

Roberta's Pizza

#6) Joe’s Pizza:
If you’re in the city, and you want an excellent slice, there is no better place than Joe’s Pizza.  It’s exactly what you want, especially at 2am.  (who am I kidding I haven’t been out until 2am in years).  Served on that flimsy barely there paper plate that you need to quadruple up so the oil doesn’t make it to your lap, you can scarf down two of these bad boys in seconds.  Cheese, sauce and ratio were golden all scoring a 4.  But the crust was mushy.  When you fold the pizza (the only way to walk and eat a pizza) it should have a nice small crack down the middle where the crust gave way to the break.  It should not be able to be rolled up into a ball.  Pizza is not rollatini.  The crust scored a 1 bringing Joe’s to a score of 13/20 (65%).

Joe's Pizza

#5) Motorino:
Freakin noms.  Sauce is delicious.  Cheese is very good.  But although the crust is a crunchy delight, it takes up way too much of the pizza.  So in this case, the ratio of crust to sauce and cheese was not doing it.  Motorino scored 14 (70%). 

Motorino Pizza


#4) Grimaldi’s:
Grimaldi’s (the Coney island location) is so underrated.  Everyone thinks of Totonno’s when they think of Coney Island Pizza (and I guess they should since Totonno’s ranks higher than Grimaldi’s on this list) but should not forget about Grimaldi’s!  The mozz is fresh, the sauce is light, the crust is crunchy.   It is a good pie.  Scored a 15/20 (75%).


Here's to Grimaldi's

#3) L&B Spumoni Gardens:
I GREW UP ON THIS PIZZA.  When I was a teenager and had a cavernous pit of a stomach I once ate an entire square pizza pie in one sitting.  And yes, that is what you order at Spumoni Garden, the square.  Omgomgomg the square pizza is a dream come true.  The crust is crunchy, the center like a pillow and in a CRAZY TWIST the sauce is over the cheese which is brilliant because it makes the cheese melt better.  Then there is the sauce which has a recipe so secretive that the owner was SHOT DEAD by the mob who says he stole the recipe.  (True story).  Get the square, (or 4), and finish up your meal with a rainbow spumoni ice.  It will be heaven.  (also great people watching as this is where all the mafia goes when they visit Brooklyn from Staten Island). L&B scored a 90%. 

Spumoni Garden

Spumoni Garden
Spumoni Ice

#2)  And the winner of the best traditional slice of pizza in New York goes to Totonno’s in Coney Island.  This is everything a slice dreams it could be.  Really it’s just so perfect in all of the categories above that I’m not even going to go into it.  Just, trust me, next time you go to Coney Island tell Nathan’s to suck it and go to Totonno’s.  Your stomach will thank you.  (Even if the surly old guy behind the counter will not). 


Totonno's crust is perf

#1) Now for the big prize.  Winner of best pizza in New York according to this indisputable science is…Lucali’s in Carroll Gardens!  Holy mother of god this pizza.  Each bite of this pie will rock your world a little more until, with a flourishing dip of your slice in the EXTRA BOWL OF SAUCE THEY GIVE YOU, your world is thoroughly rocked.  I am writing this over a plate of bland chicken in Namibia right now.  I may have to cut my visit short and fly home to get a pie a Lucali’s.  From your table you can see Lucali in the back slowly making the pizza while looking around at his kingdom.  He got stabbed a few years ago by stealing another restaurateur’s girlfriend.  He touched my back and asked how my pizza was.  I almost fell over.  Lucali’s scored a perfect 5 in each category. 

And if you don’t believe the science listen to Jay Z and Beyonce.  They DITCHED THE GRAMMIES to have a pie at Lucali’s.  And Beyonce is better than science. 



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

So, what do you do?

Every time I am at a party I dread the question, “So, what do you do?”

Because there’s no casual way of saying what I do.  My elevator pitch sounds like it should have Sarah McLachlan playing in the background. 

“I am trying to assess the burden of HIV in 13 African countries.” 

And when I try to be flippant and nonchalant I sound like an asshole.   

“Oh you know.  HIV.  In Africa.  With the babies.”

I'm like the person who kvetches about her period cramps when asked a hallway “How are you?”

I asked a few of my girlfriends who do similar work and they all feel exactly the same way.  One of them said she feels bad because she feels like they feel like she thinks she’s a saint.  Shefeelsliketheyfeellikeshethinksshe’s.  How’s that for some emotional censoring? 

I asked a male colleague if he feels awkward.   Apparently he puts “I save babies in Africa” in his Tinder profile.

I think what I do is cool.  I think I'm cool for doing it.  I do not think I am a saint.  Most of what I do is spreadsheets and conference calls and hoping that my teams will not lose another survey tablet that I have to report to the IRB.  But I’m doing what I love and hopefully helping people as well.  I just want to stop this self-imposed meekness when I explain what I do with my life.

Maybe the next time I walk into a party I’ll announce to the room “I am Chelsea, and I study HIV in Namibia!  With the babies!  I will take questions now.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

It Started With Outbreak

­­­­­When I was 10 years old, I saw the movie Outbreak.
This, is what I am going to do with my life.  I am going to wear the white suit and steal helicopters and write complicated formulas on the blackboard to teach all the health people things because I know science and I am from the CDC.  Besides, we don’t need another Alanis Morisette because we already have an Alanis Morisette and I can’t sing that great anyway.

I told my mother.

“Yes. We knew this.  You are going to be a doctor.”

Ok great, I would be a doctor and then save the people from the outbreaks.  Preferably in Africa because I think that’s where they are the sickest.  Also ‘cause I want to see a lion.

In high school, I took all the science classes, became valedictorian and told everyone I was going to join Doctors without Borders so that I could save the world.  After graduation, I took a peek at the Doctors without Borders website to see if maybe they would take me out of high school?  You never know, I did take AP Bio.  But no, apparently my dissection of a pig didn’t count as experience.  Ok, just checking.

I went to college and majored in biology.  In my spare time, I volunteered at a biochemistry lab.  Because Dustan Hoffman stole a helicopter but he also knew what he was doing in the lab.  I needed to know how science works from the bottom up.

Over spring break I volunteered at a mosquito laboratory in Vero Beach (NERD).  It was there that I put on my first full-body protection suit and went into a sealed room that contained the chikungunya virus.  The lab tech opened the airtight freezer.  It made a whooshing noise and smoke from the ice spilled out.  She showed me the tube with the virus, put it back in the freezer, and shooed me out of the room. 


Spring break ended, I was not tanner but was covered in mosquito bites.  I could not, at this point, get a boyfriend.

I ramped up my hours at the lab to include nights, weekends and the summer.  I heard from my lab friends that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was giving a grant for a student to go work at a lab studying Cholera in Kolkata, India.  Two months later I was in India.

Right next to the lab was a cholera clinic.  All day I saw grey people being carried inside.  The smell of diarrhea coming from the beds lingered on your nose hairs long after leaving.  I begged to be able to work there.

“No,” my boss said, politely, smiling and bobbing his head back and forth.  Subtext: “The last thing we need is to be responsible for this curly haired girl getting cholera.”

“Please,” I had persisted.  “I have come all the way to India; I do not want to stay behind a lab bench.”

I was 19, knew the chemistry and was ready to rid the world of cholera!

They allowed me to join a local doctor as he made his rounds in the nearby slum.  The poverty and devastation slapped me around and was exactly what I needed.

When the doctor took patient histories, it was my job to write down how many times the patients had cholera.  Not if they had cholera but how many times.  The doctor kept treating the cholera and the people of this slum kept contracting it.

“But who treats the root cause of the disease?  Makes sure their water is kept clean and stresses the importance of hand washing?”

“This,” the doctor said (drum roll) “is the role of the Epidemiologist” (gong). 

After 3 months I went back to school, continued studying, and in my senior year started applying to Public Health schools. 

When you first walk into the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health a large image projected 3 stories high shows the latest statistics of diseases and pictures of students installing mosquito nets. Omg, I was going to be that student.   It was my Mecca.  I learned about tropical diseases and how to purify a water source so that you wouldn’t get cholera.  And all of my new friends wanted to play with diseases too!  People (many people) came to my Outbreak themed party.  (There were syphilis cookies.)

I spent a year in rural Bangladesh doing my thesis.  It was the best year.  I learned the language, drove a motorcycle between rice paddies to the villages.  Got a taste of office work and submitted my first protocol to an ethical review board.  One of my coworkers died during childbirth.  The ethical review board took 6 months to approve my protocol.  I could see the urgency and could see how long it could take to affect change. 

I returned to finish classes and apply for jobs.  I applied to Doctors without Borders (which should really be called Doctors, Nurses, Epidemiologists and Logisticians without Borders).  I got through 3 rounds of the application process and was finally told “Not yet.  You need more experience.  Come back after a few more years of international work.”

I worked for the UN Foundation and helped people doing cool stuff talk to other people doing cool stuff.  AND THEN.  I was hired to lead a malaria study in Uganda! 

For 2 years I lived in Uganda and went around the country helping to conduct trainings, collect and analyze data.  I worked for the International Rescue Committee on a vaccine trial in Uganda and Ethiopia.  Maybe I could take time off the project and spend a week learning about outbreaks in the IRC refugee camps!  But the study grant ended and I had to look for a job again.

I am sitting at a desk in Ethiopia after a long day of supervising field workers go door to door interviewing people and testing them for HIV.  My face is a little sunburnt, my fingers smell like curry and my shoes are drying in the corner.  For a year and a half I have been helping to coordinate nationwide HIV surveys in Swaziland, Ethiopia and Namibia.  I am 28 years old and have been working in Public Health for the past 7 years.  I am still not Dustan Hoffman.  But tonight I started my application to Doctors without Borders.

I'm the little one on the right

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It Comes Back

I let the couch gasp for air as I finally got off of it to meet Chiara for dinner.  She picked me up in her car and we drove down the mountain and back up another one.  Chiara has been in Swaziland for 2 years now and we have grown close during my many visits.  Tonight we would join her friends at their cottage for dinner before heading out to a party.  The cottage was warm with beef stew and the bottles of delicious South African wine just made it warmer.  I immediately liked the women but when they brought out chocolate cake for dessert I knew I would marry them.

It was ok that we were roly from food and drink, because we only had to roll a few feet from the cottage to the party.  It was Swaziland Art night, Swarty, and bands from South Africa came to perform in the sunken living room of an empty mansion.  Every expat within a 100 mile radius heard the siren call of booze and music and packed in.  The mansion was meant for Airbnb guests and so it felt like we were children playing in an empty adult house, unchaperoned.   Anyone could pop behind the fully stocked bar and pretend to be bartender, making concoctions just like I used to do as a kid in the schoolyard.  But this time my drink was made of Jameson instead of mud and fancy berries instead of the leftover ketchup in the fridge.

I felt comfortable.  Besides knowing many people from my previous visits, it was so easy to lean back into that swaying feeling that comes from being more than 8,000 miles from home.  A feeling of freedom and recklessness and familiarity with the unfamiliar.  I love the small talk that happens seamlessly at an expat party but would make me feel like a douche anywhere else.

“Oh I just got in from Johannesburg.  You’re headed to Uganda?  Nice!   Say hi to my cat for me.”

We danced under a disco light (??) to songs that were popular 2 years ago.  We played in a sunken bathtub and slid around the kitchen.  I ran outside, to a hill on a mountain and called the boy. 


I’m happy that I’m here for 2 weeks but excited to go home to my sweet apartment in Harlem.  I never once regret not taking the job overseas.  I like my happy hour on Thursdays and my bagels on Saturday.  But when I get antsy in my cubicle and miss the freedom of distance, I know I’ll be going to Namibia next month, and Ethiopia after that, and then…who knows?