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Posted: 25 Oct 2011
Career Pathways: Pontiano Kaleebu

One of Africa's leaders in HIV research tells HIVe that a successful career is a combination of personal effort, available opportunities and the right environment.  

Tell us about your current position

I'm the Director of the MRC/UVRI Uganda Research Unit on AIDS and Head of the Unit’s Basic Science Programme.  I’m also the Deputy Director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute and head of the Institute’s Immunology Department.  The MRC Unit is a multidisciplinary organization with about 390 staff members involved in research to better control the HIV epidemic through prevention and care in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa.  My responsibility is to ensure the Unit delivers its scientific agenda with the resources available.  UVRI and its partners, with more than 1000 staff, are involved in research on a wide range of viruses.  I contribute to its scientific goals, especially in immunology and molecular virology.

What is your background/training in?

I trained as a medical doctor at Makerere University and later had post graduate training in Immunology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and St. Mary's Hospital, London, under the University of London (currently Imperial College, London).  My doctoral work under Professor Jonathan Weber was to understand whether HIV genetic subtypes correlate with specific antigenic properties such as neutralization.  This work also exposed me to various molecular techniques for typing HIV-1 from various parts of the world and participation in the WHO HIV virus isolation and characterization network and later HIV vaccine related work.

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

As the head of Basic Sciences Programme of the MRC/UVRI Unit and head of Immunology Division of the UVRI, I have contributed to HIV vaccine research and development, especially studies on potential protective immune responses, the relevance of HIV subtypes and vaccine-induced immune responses, including participation in the first HIV vaccine trial in Africa.  With funding from MRC-UK and elsewhere and the multidisciplinary research approach, we have set up very good research teams where we perform most of the research and laboratory assays without the need to ship specimens and data abroad.  What I like is that we lead our research activities.  I have also learnt that you need to work as a team to be productive.  I’m a co-founder and for nine years up to December 2010 was the Executive Director of the UVRI/IAVI HIV vaccine programme.  I was a principal investigator of two phase I vaccine trials funded by IAVI.  This position further exposed me to vaccine trial requirements and collaborations with a number of vaccine research networks.  What I have learnt is that you need to build capacity, especially helping young people to be involved, and also to empower them.

I have been a member of the African AIDS Vaccine Programme steering committee from its inception to 2010 when AAVP became an independent organization based in Africa.  I was a vice-chair of this committee and later chairperson.  This provided further opportunities and networking with different organizations such as WHO/UNAIDS, and the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, among others.

In research, I have learnt that you need to publish and improve on your CV.  I have also learnt that a lot can be done in Africa including basic research.  What I do not like is exploitative thinking that African researchers and centers can only play supportive roles and that all the exciting and interesting work should be left to those from more advanced countries.

Who or what had the greatest impact on your career?

The HIV epidemic in Uganda that has affected every family including mine, and the desire to be part of finding a solution, was a driving force.  I also did not find clinical medicine exciting.  I opted to join a research institution rather than stay in a hospital. Along the way I also met many individuals who played a very important catalytic role in my career, including the late Dr. Sylvester Sempala, former UVRI Director, my mentors, Profs. Jonathan Weber, Mary Ritter and Frances Gotch at Imperial college and Dr. José Esparza while at WHO.  The previous directors and staff of the MRC Unit have also been key to my career. Our partnership with IAVI has also been very instrumental.  Finally, the financial support from the MRC UK has given me opportunities to conduct relevant research and to create a productive team.

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

We recognize that building a successful career is a combination of personal effort, available opportunities and the right environment. Well, as some factors are not under our control, we need to maximize on the factors we can control.  These include being focused on our goals, commitment, efficiency in whatever we do and identifying the opportunities at the right time.  I might have had the right environment at the right time, but by being focused, striving to be very efficient in whatever I do and identifying the opportunities have been key factors in my success.


Prof. Pontiano Kaleebu is the Director of the Medical Research Center/Uganda Virus Research Institute Unit on AIDS and Head of the Unit’s Basic Science Programme and the Deputy Director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute and head of the Institute’s Immunology Department.

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.