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Researcher Spotlight: Professor Thumbi Ndung’u

21 Sep, 2015

Prof Thumbi Ndung'uProfessor Thumbi Ndung’u is the Victor Daitz Chair in HIV/TB Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He works in the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV and is the Programme Director of Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV research Excellence (SANTHE) network, funded with a DELTAS Africa Award. The aim of the network is to strengthen partnerships in HIV and TB research across 12 African research sites, and to train the next-generation leaders of African science and create enabling environments for excellence in research and collaboration in Africa. With so much interesting work to talk about, we couldn’t wait to read his answers to our Researcher Spotlight questions…

What are you working on?

Our research goals are to understand how the immune system fights off HIV and TB and how these pathogens in turn evade or adapt to continuous immune pressure.  Ultimately, we hope to use this knowledge for rational vaccine, immunotherapeutic or cure strategies against these two major killer diseases.

What does your average day involve?

I have this odd habit of first checking baseball scores when I get to the office – to see how the Red Sox did! Blame that on the time I spent in Boston as a graduate student. I then embark on a lot of meetings! I may start the day with a lab meeting or a meeting with one of my students or postdoctoral fellows. I will then sit to work on a grant application, draft manuscript, student thesis or sit to discuss experiments. I will then be interrupted by a student or other colleague – which is the best part of my work! Next might be dashing to a meeting, then on to a conference/Skype call, attend a lecture and then I’m off for an evening jog before heading home to catch up with my family…

Professor Thumbi Ndung’u and K-RITH Post-Doctoral Fellow Jenn Maroa prepare blood samples for cell separation and analysis

Professor Thumbi Ndung’u and K-RITH Post-Doctoral Fellow Jenn Maroa prepare blood samples for cell separation and analysis

Why is your work important?

Vaccines are the most effective public health tool available for the control of infectious diseases.  It is a great honour to contribute to the effort to develop effective vaccines against the two major infectious killers in the world.

In addition, I am contributing to knowledge generation and capacity development in the region of the world with the least collective scientific capacity and yet which has the greatest burden of infectious disease in the world.  There is no greater calling.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

Reduction in human suffering, and better scientific capacity to combat major diseases and socio-economic development for Africa.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

I have been blessed with a supportive family and friends and great mentors who believed in me.  I have incredibly gifted colleagues who make me look forward to fun at work every day!

They have collectively guided, encouraged, cajoled and intimidated me into the field of HIV/TB research and ensured that I stayed the course.  Along the way, they have taught me to take my work seriously, but never take myself too seriously.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

This is a turning point for my career. Not only is it an opportunity to undertake cutting-edge research and train scientists focused on African problems, but we also want to build attractive research environments and engage communities in which we work.  It is an opportunity to do transformative science that solves problems, builds for the future, and is good for society in a holistic way.

Thumbi and Research Associate in my lab, Dr Emily Wong on a recent visit to the coffee farm where I grew up in Gathugu village, Kenya

Thumbi and Research Associate in his lab, Dr Emily Wong on a recent visit to the coffee farm where he grew up in Gathugu village, Kenya

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“When will we get an HIV vaccine?”

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“When will we get an HIV vaccine?”

I dread this because my answer remains as it was ten years ago: “I don’t know!” – and yet I am optimistic that there will be one.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I grew up on a coffee farm in rural Kenya, I hand-milked cows as a young man on the farm and I did a newspaper delivery job as a postgraduate student at Harvard University. I still get a chill down my spine thinking of my newspaper delivery route during the Boston winters!

k-rith tower building night 2

The K-RITH Tower Building, which is based on the UKZN Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine campus in Durban

What keeps you awake at night?

Experiments that are not working…

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

There are so many gems over the years, but I grew up in a Christian home that valued time and hard work, so Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” easily comes to mind.

The chain-reaction question, set by our previous spotlit researcher, Naomi Penfold, is this: “If you were transitioning from school to university now, what undergraduate degree course would you take and why?”

I love inquiry and discovery, so it would have to be medicine or medical sciences.  Medicine, law and journalism all best epitomize the human instinct to know, which appeals to me a lot.

Medicine or medical sciences take the prize because of their ability to change the human condition in a personal, visible and ultimately universal way.

You can find out more about Prof Thumbi Ndung’u’s DELTAS Africa Award and the work that he is involved in on his profile page on the K-RITH website. Our DELTAS Africa press release and recent blog post have more information about DELTAS Africa and the awards made under this scheme.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 30 Nov, 2015 6:38 am

    I love your efforts professor u r amazing am pursuing clinical medicine surgery too in outspan medical school in nyeri.I love medics I will join you soon

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