Q&A with Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u

Thumbi-Ndung'uThough he is now an Associate Professor in HIV/AIDS Research at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, as well as the Scientific Director of the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the Doris Duke Medical Research Institute at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, not so long ago Thumbi Ndung’u was a graduate student working with Max Essex at the Harvard AIDS Initiative.

He earned his PhD from Harvard in 2001, receiving the Haber Award in recognition of his “outstanding, original and creative thesis work that makes a fundamental contribution to our understanding of a biological problem important to public health.” After graduation he returned to Africa to work as a Research Scientist and the Laboratory Director at the Botswana–Harvard Partnership. He currently works in KwaZulu Natal, where approximately 40% of women reporting to antenatal clinics are HIV positive. His research focuses on HIV pathogenesis, host genetics, viral factors, and immune responses.

On a recent visit to Boston, Dr. Ndung’u spoke with Spotlight Editor, Martha Henry.

Spotlight: What did you learn from Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, who was one of your mentors

Ndung’u: I learned so much from Max: patience, seeing the big picture, humility, and the appreciation of other points of view. To me Max exemplifies trying to create something bigger than yourself. He values what other people bring to the table.

Max Essex and Thumbi Ndung'u
Max Essex and Thumbi Ndung’u

From Max I also learned that you need to be adaptable so that you can change and not be upset or intimidated when a new idea or new knowledge comes along. You have to be flexible in the way that you approach issues and be ready to utilize and integrate new knowledge into your work. You have to learn to constructively challenge others, but be open-minded to criticism.

Spotlight: What advice do you give to students who are contemplating a career in AIDS research?

Ndung’u: You’ve got to have a passion for it. You know one of the things that I always tell my students is that there’s not much money in HIV research. We’re here because we believe that we have the capability to solve this important problem. If you don’t have a passion, you may as well not do it, because research isn’t easy.

Spotlight: When you’re interviewing a student or post doc to work in your lab, other than intelligence and a strong work ethic, what are you looking for?

Ndung’u: I’m looking for a person who will be a bit different. I’m looking for a student who will fit into the group, but who will also explore outside the group. At the end of the day, you can only learn so much from your supervisor. You learn a lot from other people and from challenging the norm. I have a number of students in my lab who are very sharp. They are always asking questions, challenging me and each other. I like that attitude as a catalyst for generating new knowledge.

Spotlight: You now have over a dozen graduate students working in your lab. How did your experience as a student in the Essex Lab influence how you supervise and mentor your own students?

Ndung’u: One of the things that I stress in the lab is that people should be generous with their ideas. You learn a lot when you’re working in a laboratory that’s functioning well. Your supervisor might provide the right environment, but it’s really your colleagues that you’re interacting with on a daily basis. You need to listen to and communicate with them. So I try to encourage a supportive environment, where it’s a team rather than a competition that’s going on within the group.

Spotlight: By nature, research involves a lot of dead ends. Sometimes a graduate student will work for months or years on a project that yields no useful results, only to have to abandon the work and start over again from scratch. How do you counsel a student who has just hit a dead end?

Ndung’u: First of all, right from the beginning, I tell my students that in graduate school, you’re here to learn. Every experience you have in the lab is a learning experience. So when an experiment doesn’t work, it’s not that you’ve failed. You need to have the mentality that it’s not about success or failure; it’s about learning and fine-tuning what you’re doing. It’s about developing into a scientist.

Spotlight: Exceptional students from Africa are recruited to study in the U.S. in the hope that they will return to Africa at the end of their training to help develop both research and educational capacities. You’ve done this. How can universities like Harvard increase their success rate?

Ndung’u: I think that they need to have programs in the developing world. A lot of faculty who study issues in developing countries or Africa have not spent considerable time there. They have very little connection on an ongoing basis so they work on problems from a very academic point of view.

I think that one of the reasons why people don’t go back is because it’s not easy to go and start a program on your own when you’re fresh from graduate school or a post doc. The reason I went back myself was because there was an opportunity where Harvard had a program in a developing country. Max asked me to take a position at the Botswana–Harvard Partnership. Because I knew that I could get support and that there was infrastructure that Harvard had already developed there, it was easy for me to go.

So it’s about establishing programs and creating opportunities. Harvard could help, for example, by offering outstanding scholars joint appointments—creating positions that are resident in the developing country, but also with a substantive appointment at Harvard so that you can feel some kind of attachment and support from here.

We should also encourage students to go back and forth, to go and see the real world, as it were, from Harvard. It should be an on-going exchange. A lot of students from Harvard come and work in my lab in the summer or at other times of the year. I have students from South Africa who come and work here. I think that sort of constant exchange is very important.

As I said, it’s the ability to appreciate what other people bring to the table because they bring a different perspective from their experiences. In the end, I think it’s not only good for the developing country and the students, I think it’s also good for Harvard and the global community, especially in trying to address public health issues.