See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 6

HIV Researcher Probes Vulnerabilities in the Virus for Clues to a Vaccine

Thumbi Ndung'u has moved from Africa to Massachusetts and back in a quest to halt the AIDS epidemic
Thumbi Ndung'u, HIV Vaccine,AIDS epidemic

Photograph by Jodi Bieber

The unlikely path that Thumbi Ndung’u followed to become a world-class AIDS researcher began in a rural highland village in Kenya. Ndung’u grew up with five brothers and five sisters in a house with no running water or electricity. He picked coffee beans and milked the family cows when he wasn’t at school. By Kenyan standards, he was middle class, and his father was a hardworking teacher at a neighborhood school. It would take a series of lucky breaks for this gifted scientist to wend his way to the Ph.D. program at Harvard University, becoming the first scientist to clone HIV subtype C—the most prevalent strain of HIV in Africa and one long ignored by Western scientists.

This year Ndung’u, 43, was awarded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s International Early Career Scientist award, which gives him five years of funding to pursue his work on genes in the immune system that help to fight AIDS and may lead to a vaccine. He heads the HIV Path­o­gen­es­is Program at the University of Kwa­Zulu-Natal, located in a corner of South Africa where HIV prevalence hovers at 39.5 percent, placing it among the hard­est-hit populations in the world. With a broad smile and unshakable optimism, he mentors up-and-coming African scientists, whose thank-you notes line his modest office, which has just enough room to squeeze in a second chair.

This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now!

Select an option below:

Customer Sign In

*You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content

It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on
Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Scientific American Mind Digital

Get 6 bi-monthly digital issues
+ 1yr of archive access for just $9.99

Hurry this offer ends soon! >


Email this Article


Next Article