Thumbi Ndung’u Honored with Chan School, Retrovirology Awards

Date: October 27, 2023 By: Nick Kolev

Both awards recognized his lifelong commitment to HIV research and his leadership in this field on the African continent

Ragon associate member Thumbi Ndung’u, PhD, was recently awarded the 2023 Leadership Award in Public Health Practice by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as well as the K.T. Jeang Retrovirology Prize from a committee constituted by the editorial board of the journal Retrovirology. Both awards were given in recognition of Ndung’u’s impressive dedication to research and public health over his decades-long career.

Ndung’u pictured at the Chan School awards ceremony with Ragon founding director Bruce Walker.

“I was elated and very happy to receive these awards because it’s a recognition of my efforts and leadership, and also the effectiveness of the partnerships and collaborations that I have worked within” he said.

The Leadership Award in Public Health Practice  honors a Chan School graduate who has been an outstanding example of effective leadership in the practice of public health, in the public or private sphere. As the director for basic and translational science at the African Health Research Institute (AHRI) in Durban, South Africa and the programme director for the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE), a research and capacity building consortium working in 8 African countries, Ndung’u’s contributions to HIV and TB research have been particularly significant.

Ndung’u was presented the Leadership Award in Public Health Practice at a ceremony during Harvard’s Alumni Weekend on Sept. 30.

The K.T. Jeang Retrovirology Prize is awarded to scientists who have made outstanding contributions to the study of retroviruses and are in the middle of their career. 

Retroviruses are a type of virus which have genes encoded in RNA instead of DNA. The virus encodes itself in the DNA of the host and uses that to trick the host into producing more copies of the virus. The most well-known of these by far is HIV.

Originally named the Retrovirology Prize, this accolade was established in 2005 by Kuan-Teh Jeang, the late founding editor of Retrovirology to honor mid-career scientists — a demographic which he felt did not receive as much positive exposure compared to early- and late-career scientists.

Ndung’u said he is honored to have received these awards and was delighted to hear he would be an awardee, but that they also served to acknowledge the hard work of his team.

“I think a lot of what I have accomplished is as a result of team effort and partnerships with people,” Ndung’u said. “Collectively, we have worked hard to promote African science, and we are seeing the fruits of those efforts.”

In his role as director, Ndung’u leads AHRI’s basic and translational research. The institute  combines basic, population, social, and clinical sciences to understand and intervene in the health and well-being of South African communities. Ndung’u is also the scientific director of the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which has collaborated with Ragon Institute researchers for more than two decades.

His research has included HIV prevention, treatment, transmission and spread to inform vaccine design, alongside studying HIV reservoirs and cure strategies.

Ndung’u is a cofounder of the FRESH (Females Rising through Education, Support, and Health) program which combines basic science research and social economic empowerment by providing intensive HIV-1 prevention services as well as career and life-skills training to young women in South Africa.

Beyond recognizing this work, Ndung’u said these awards are also important for promoting the growth of African science on a broad scale and the great leaps it has made in recent years.

“I am delighted because they are awarding excellence in African science,” Ndung’u said. “I see them as recognition for the effort people have put in to improve African science and make it competitive on a global scale. These awards will also inspire many scientists from within Africa for scientific innovation and public health impact.” 

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