Celebrated AIDS Researcher Reflects on Move to UC-Davis, Meharry Tenure

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by B. Denise Hawkins

Nearly 30 years ago, renowned immunologist James E.K. Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D., was compelled to start researching the virus that causes AIDS. He marveled at its enigma and was pressed into action by its ability to cut lives short and devastate communities. The disease set him on a course of medical inquiry that has included biomedical breakthroughs in understanding its transmission.

Diverse first interviewed Hildreth in 2005, when he arrived at Meharry Medical College from Johns Hopkins University to head its new Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research. In June, Hildreth was named dean of the University of California, Davis College of Biological Sciences. On the heels of that move, the National Institutes of Health in September awarded Hildreth with the Director’s Pioneer Award, a $3.85 million grant that recognizes the research he began at Hopkins and at Meharry, but most importantly allows him to develop and transform discoveries on the HIV/AIDS front.

In this conversation, Hildreth discusses his latest move to UC Davis, his tenure at Meharry, why he’s frightened for Black women and what makes him hopeful about HIV/AIDS 30 years after the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States.

DI: In retrospect, did you achieve what you set out to do as a professor and AIDS researcher at Meharry? When did you know that you hit the mark you set or fell short?

JH: I know that we didn’t hit the mark that I’d hope we would. While at Meharry, I had hoped that we would be doing human trials with the microbicides, but we’re not there yet. We are going back to doing animal studies before moving forward with the human studies. The larger, more important goal was to demonstrate or create an infrastructure for research at a very high level that was commensurate with research that I was a part of at Hopkins. If you look at the papers that the team published and you look at the opportunities to speak at national meetings and serve on national review panels and other measures of recognition that one can have, that part I can feel good about.

It’s a process, especially when you are starting at a place with limited resources and a changing and growing infrastructure. But the one thing that always kept us sustained was the knowledge that we were doing work that seemed to make a difference and have impact, at least to the local community.

DI: Is ensuring that the research you are now conducting at UC Davis and the researchers doing the work are diverse and inclusive something that you feel personally and professionally committed to?

JH: Absolutely. An important piece of the work that I’m doing now is making sure that those who are doing the work and those deciding how the work will be done look like the overall population. As in nature itself, diversity confers strength on many levels. To solve some of the big problems that we face, we need all of the talent and all of the hands pushing that we can. If you look around the country at the biomedical workforce, there clearly is a need to get more minorities involved.

DI: Many of your peers are celebrating your move to UC Davis, yet, Meharry, a revered and historic Black medical school is now without its leading AIDS researcher.

JH: Well, I don’t disagree with that. I do feel that there are others who, if the circumstances are made appropriate, would and can step into a great job and keep things moving. But we all evolve in our personal careers and personal growth. Changes like this are common in academic life. When I sat down to analyze the situation, my possible contributions to science and to society, and even to African-Americans, I thought about would it be better [to] remain as the director of the HIV Center at Meharry or become the dean of the College of Biological Sciences at Davis.

In the end, it was apparent to me, coming to lead this college and having this particular platform from which to operate would allow me to have an impact that was much more significant, even in terms of what I could do or contribute to African-Americans and their overall health.

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