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.