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Posted: 19 Aug 2011
Career Pathways: Amalio Telenti

Tell us about your current position

I am currently the director of the Institute of Microbiology of the University Hospital of Lausanne, and professor of medical virology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland.  My time is split equally between clinical duties in diagnostic microbiology and infectious diseases, and teaching and research activities.

What is your background/training in?

I completed my MD in Oviedo, Spain.  I left soon after graduation to train in internal medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in the US.  I returned to Europe as a postdoc at the Institute of Microbiology at the University of Bern in Switzerland.  A few years working in the genetics of tuberculosis drug resistance led to a PhD in Microbiology.  Thus, like many in the medical field, I have gone through periods of intense clinical training and the needs of rapid decision that characterizes medical care, to the laboratory environment, where research objectives are reached in months or years.

What other positions have you held and how have they influenced your career?

I was fortunate to train at the Mayo Clinic, where emphasis is placed on excellence in patient care.  We had the luxury of daily rounds with the attending doctor, and the constant hammering of clinical knowledge.  I am still profiting from those years of training.  Coming to the University of Bern was a shock - I was left more or less alone in a laboratory to figure it out - and everything was in German!  However, this was a time of full autonomy and I worked on the topics I wanted to work on.  Between 1993 and 1996, my group and collaborators cloned the genes of resistance to rifampin, fluoroquinolones and ethambutol in Mycobacterium tuberculosis.  In 1997 I was recruited to the University Hospital of Lausanne to run the HIV outpatient clinic - although I could not speak French!  It was the beginning of HAART and a period of electrifying enthusiasm.  In 2003, looking to spend more time in the laboratory, I again made the transition from Infectious Diseases to Microbiology at the same institution.  Influenced by the diversity of clinical progression among HIV infected patients, I initiated in 2002 the Swiss HIV Cohort Core Genetics project, which would set in motion my current research.  I took the direction of the Institute in 2007.

Who or what had the greatest impact on your career?

There are always people, timing, serendipity, and "positions by default".  I start with the last: I went to a research lab in Switzerland because I could not get a clinical appointment in my country of origin, Spain.  When I wanted to go back to the clinics, I accepted HIV because that was a post that was vacant: the Hospital in Lausanne could not get anyone else to cover this slot!

And, yes, serendipity brought me to the then pretty quiescent tuberculosis field of research - one year ahead of the epidemic of multidrug resistance in New York.  Serendipity was also at work when I entered the field of effective HIV drug treatment right at its beginning, and the field of genetics and genomics the year of completion of the human genome sequence.

 The people with the greatest impact were my father and grandfather, physicians who treated - and also suffered from - tuberculosis (my father), and who treated many destitute people.

One paper, one single paper, the identification of rpoB as the locus of rifampin resistance mutations in tuberculosis that I published in Lancet in 1993 set my career path.  

What advice would you like to share with our readers who may be early in their careers?

If you are a medical doctor, you may realize that many things in medicine do not fit the book, that patients are diverse, and that it is relatively easy to identify gaps in knowledge by looking around in your own daily experience.  Developing your field of expertise around those gaps is much easier than if you follow fashion and the dictates of the crowd!

If you are entering laboratory research, you may benefit from a comment I've heard from my first lab chief.  I asked what he himself was doing in the lab (he usually pipetted quietly in the evenings).  He answered: "I am doing the things that do not work". When I inquired how many things do actually work,  he answered "Only around 10% - but it is a very good rate because one or two things get to work every year".


Prof. Amalio Telenti is the director of the Institute of Microbiology of the University Hospital of Lausanne, and professor of medical virology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland.

Career Pathways is a series of stories highlighting career trajectories of highly respected individuals working in HIV vaccine research and development that gives a glimpse into the job possibilities, decision-making processes, and situations that got these individuals where they are today.