Dr. Vladimir Novitsky: Trying Something Different

Dr. Vladimir Novitsky (right) advises PhD student Raabya Rossenkhan.
Dr. Vladimir Novitsky (right) advises PhD student Raabya Rossenkhan.

By Martha Henry

Like a lot of boys growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Vladimir Novitsky wanted to be an astronaut. While his counterparts in the U.S. idolized John Glenn, his hero was Yuri Gagarin, the first man to successfully orbit the Earth.

Novitsky comes from a scientific family. His mother was a microbiologist and his father a gynecologist. Perhaps because of parental influence, medicine eventually won out over space exploration and Novitsky enrolled in medical school in the Ukrainian city of Odessa.

Following medical school, he worked as a virologist at an Odessa biotechnology company that produced a herpes simplex vaccine for the entire Soviet Union. After a few years, Novitsky left for Moscow to get his PhD in virology.

In 1992, he was appointed as a Senior Scientist at the new Southern Ukrainian AIDS Center, where he supervised HIV diagnostics in 33 screening laboratories and provided major contributions to HIV/AIDS epidemiology in the region. “HIV was not very prevalent at the time, but it was scary because there was no treatment and stigma was huge,” said Novitsky. “In Odessa, HIV was associated with injection drug users. It exploded from almost nothing to very high because people shared injection equipment—10 to 15 people used the same syringe.”

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, funding for scientific endeavors was severely cut. There was little money to maintain laboratories or buy imported reagents used in the most basic research. “It was a frustrating time,” said Novitsky.

A young Novitsky at work in the Ukraine
A young Novitsky at work in the Ukraine

In 1994 he won a local competition through the British Council to work in London for a year at the Central Public Health Laboratory. While there, Novitsky continued studying the molecular virology and immunology of HIV, as well as the management and maintenance of large HIV reference laboratories.

He arrived in Boston in 1996 to work as a Research Fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative. It was an opportune time. That same year, Essex had gone to Botswana and brought back blood samples from people infected with HIV. Though AIDS was ravaging the country, until then almost no HIV/AIDS research had been done in Botswana. Back in the lab in Boston, Novitsky was involved with isolating and sequencing viral DNA from the first Botswana samples.

After an agreement was reached to establish the Botswana–Harvard Partnership (BHP), Novitsky, working with Mary Fran McLane, helped to design the Botswana–Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory in Gaborone. His experiences in Odessa and London gave him an ideal background for setting up the new lab and training the scientists and technicians who would work there.

Essex was impressed with Novitsky’s quiet energy and intelligence and worked to keep him at Harvard. “Vlad is very bright, but he also has deep knowledge and commitment,” said Essex. “Having him in the lab is a blessing. We learn a lot from each other.”

Novitsky was appointed as a Research Scientist at the Harvard AIDS Initiative in 2000. He became a U.S. citizen in 2005. Today he holds the title of Principal Research Scientist and is a mainstay of the labs in Boston and Botswana.

He is working to understand why the AIDS epidemic is so much worse in southern Africa than elsewhere, as well as how to control the virus. He was the first author on HAI’s recent paper on acute infection that found that about 25% of people infected with HIV-1C, the virus predominant in southern Africa, maintain an initial high viral load for much longer than expected. (See cover story.)

Like most senior scientists, Novitsky spends little time actually running experiments in the lab. His days are spent analyzing data, writing papers, and applying for grants. He supervises the lab technicians and works closely with students and visiting scientists, helping them to identify and design research projects.

Dr. Simani Gaseitsiwe received the benefit of Novitsky’s mentorship when he worked as a research assistant at the BHP in 2000. Novitsky taught him the basics of biomedical research, inspiring Gaseitsiwe to pursue his PhD at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Gaseitsiwe now oversees laboratory research activities at the BHP; his mentor has become his colleague.

Gaseitsiwe credits Novitsky with teaching him how to deal with the frustrations inherent in laboratory research. “Part of the training is that you make mistakes. Things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to—that’s part of the research process,” said Gaseitsiwe. “Once you reach that moment when things do work, then you really feel the joy. It wouldn’t be as exciting if it worked all the time. Then what would be the challenge?”

Raabya Rossenkhan, a PhD student in molecular biology, understands those challenges. “Vlad helps you look at things in different ways. He’ll push you to ask a question more specifically, to make your inquiry more scientifically robust,” she said. “If something isn’t working, he usually says, ‘Try something else. And if that doesn’t work, try something else.'”

For Novitsky, helping students mature as scientists is one of the rewards of his work. “I enjoy seeing their growth,” he said, “and seeing them develop from being completely clueless about a problem to becoming creative thinkers.”