By Kristin Hubing
In his first six months as a clinical virologist at the University of Oxford in 1988, Douglas F. Nixon identified part of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that could stimulate a white blood cell. It was a substantial finding at the time, and the first of many for Dr. Nixon, the renowned HIV/AIDS researcher and educator who was installed as the Walter G. Ross Professor of Basic Science Research at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences on Wednesday.
“Dr. Nixon is tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges, and his exceptional work holds real promise for improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” said SMHS Dean and Vice President for Health Affairs Jeffrey S. Akman.
The professorship, which was created by the Walter G. Ross Foundation in 2006, was designed to support an SMHS faculty member with a significant portfolio in basic science research and interest in translating that research into clinical practice.
Dr. Nixon, who was named chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at SMHS in October, leads the school’s Research Center for Neglected Diseases of Poverty — housed within Ross Hall’s newly constructed lab space — and its Center for Basic Research and Prevention of HIV/AIDS. Beyond Foggy Bottom, he also serves as chair of the National Institutes of Health AIDS Vaccine Research Subcommittee.
Dr. Akman cited Dr. Nixon’s enthusiasm and bold, yet collaborative and respectful, leadership style as strengths he brings to his new role. “Dr. Nixon has a profound personal commitment to making a difference in the lives of people here in the District of Columbia, as well as around the world,” said Dr. Akman.
George Washington President Steven Knapp, whose priorities include expanding the scope of the university’s research, said he was happy to continue a tradition of endowed professorships that began nearly 500 years ago.
“Dr. Nixon is a renowned researcher and educator who has dedicated his career to the prevention and eradication of HIV/AIDS,” Dr. Knapp said.
Dr. Nixon earned a bachelor’s degree in immunology from University College of London in 1981, at a time when “an aggressive and unknown disease,” later identified as AIDS, was spreading across the U.S. and Europe, Dr. Knapp said. After his undergraduate studies, Dr. Nixon received a medical degree from Westminster Medical School, and master’s and doctoral degrees in immunology from the University of Oxford.
Some of his professional accomplishments include publishing more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals and leading research teams around the world in the effort to develop a cure for HIV/AIDS. Dr. Nixon’s work has been recognized by numerous research organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Foundation and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Mike McCune, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Experimental Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco — where Dr. Nixon previously led a lab focused on cellular immune responses to HIV—called Dr. Nixon “one of the most outstanding scientists in the field.”
“Doug is a wonderful teacher and role model,” he said. “He has a knack for teaching scientists how to form collaborative multidisciplinary teams, which is not common amongst biologists.”
After the professorship was officially conferred by Dr. Knapp, Dr. Nixon said, “It’s actually about all of us, because we’re here to work toward eliminating diseases that are causing suffering in many places around the world.”
Dr. Nixon attributed the traits outlined by the afternoon’s speakers to his family members — his father, a physicist; his mother, a judge; and his sister, a musician and linguist. He added a few other details that he suspected his audience was not aware of: He was a bestselling author as a teenager, he has been kidnapped three times and he has climbed two of China’s sacred mountains.
Dr. Nixon said he has enjoyed his time at GW thus far, especially his involvement in a collaboration with students from the university’s interior design program, who are creating timepieces to depict Dr. Nixon’s oft-repeated maxim: “Time to end HIV.”
“It’s wonderful to see a congruence of artists and scientists who can inspire each other,” he said.
“No one individual is going to make this breakthrough,” Dr. Nixon said in closing. “We all come up with ideas. Ideas are frequent. But actually putting things into practice requires groups to work together and to set common goals. We want to cure AIDS. It’s time to end HIV.”