HVTN Investigator Receives Prestigious European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership Award

After learning of this award being bestowed upon one of our Network investigators, we engaged Professor Ramjee in an interview to get her reaction and thoughts.

Can you tell us a little about your professional background?

Prof. Gita Ramjee
Prof. Gita Ramjee Click for high-res version

I am a basic scientist by qualification and my degree was conferred at the University of Sunderland in the UK.  After moving to South Africa, I completed a Master’s degree in the role of Aflatoxins in childhood malnutrition. My PhD focused on the role of Proteinuria in childhood kidney diseases.  After my PhD, I was invited to lead a project on vaginal microbicides for the prevention of HIV among a group of sex workers working along the trucking route between the port city of Durban and the commercial capital in Johannesburg. That trial was my introduction to HIV prevention among high risk populations.  It was a pivotal study which changed the direction of my profession.  I learnt about the dire need for women-initiated HIV prevention options and the socio-behavioural and cultural factors that impact women’s lives.  I dedicated my time to researching methods of HIV prevention, and continue to do so to date.

What inspired you to get into science? HIV?

The EDCTP prizes recognise outstanding individuals and research teams from Africa and Europe who have made significant contributions to health research. In addition to their scientific excellence, the awardees will have made major contributions to the EDCTP objectives of strengthening clinical research capacity in Africa and supporting South-South and North-South networking.

The Outstanding Female Scientist prize is awarded to excellent world-class female scientists in sub-Saharan Africa working in the scope of the second EDCTP programme. I received this award in 2018 with close competition from scientists in Africa and Europe. I was absolutely thrilled by this award, as it recognizes decades of my commitment to clinical research activities in HIV prevention. What makes it more rewarding is that I now stand among the female giants who received this award in the past. This award is dedicated to all female scientists who play multiple roles (wife, mother and scientist) daily and their unwavering commitments to a greater public good.

What inspired you to get into science? HIV?

I have numerous moments where I feel a great sense of achievement.

  1. Completion of my first ever clinical trial, which was a pivotal trial to close the lid on further research on Nonoxynol9- this trial put me on the global landscape as a scientist who has experience in conducting clinical trials in a developing country. I was a sought-after scientist for future studies on HIV prevention.
  2. Competing successfully and independently as the PI for the NIH-funded Clinical Trials Unit.  I have achieved this successfully despite competition in Africa and elsewhere.
  3. Building a world class clinical trial infrastructure with massive integrated operational, clinical, and financial systems to manage 6 clinical research sites. The sites are led by well-trained staff who are able to conduct multiple trials.
  4. Building partnerships with local communities spanning over a decade, through bi-directional support, respect and transparency.
  5. Receiving the following awards and accolades:
  • EDCTP/ European Union Outstanding African Female Scientist (Lisbon, September 2018)
  • SAMRC Scientific Merit Awards: Gold Scientific Achievement Award (October 2017)
  • Clinical Professor, Department of Global Health, School of Medicine, University of Washington
  • Fellowship of Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh)
  • KZN Department of Health  Service Excellence Award, February 2014
  • MTN Service Of Excellence Award For Contribution To NIH-Funded Microbicide Network Leadership Group, February 2014
  • Lifetime Achievement Award in HIV Prevention Research, Microbicides2012 Conference, Sydney, Australia, 19th April 2012
  • Outstanding Scientific Contribution to Microbicides2010, 1st Place Award to HPRU CTU
  • Honorary Professorship awarded by Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London UK
  • Distinguished Visiting Professorship awarded at 5th International Conference on AIDS in India by Tamil Nadu Medical University, India
  • Research Service Award presented by the National Institutes of Health, HIV Prevention Trials Network
  • Finalist: Woman of the Year Award, Category Science and Technology
  • Finalist: Dept. of Science and Technology Award for Distinguished Woman Scientist
  • Selected Scientist to be visited by President Clinton and Bill and Melinda Gates
  • NIH HIV Prevention Trials Network Award for outstanding efforts for HPTN 035 study
  • Co-Applicant, Africa Centre, funded by the Welcome Trust- £5 million over  5 years
  • Astra Zeneca award for best scientific paper, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Medical Research Council Scholarship – PhD

Are there any things you would change or do differently if you could?

Actually my growth in my field of expertise is better than I ever expected! I did not dream that the love of my job, my passion and drive would get me this far!  I have an excellent team that do some amazing work and I would not change that. More importantly, I have two highly successful boys who are excelling in their chosen professions and a successful husband. So, I have not done too badly on all fronts.

If I was much younger and not committed to my family life, I think I would like to have done a medical degree after my PhD. Although I am a clinical researcher, I would have liked to pursue a medical degree.

If I was a drug sponsor, I would listen more to research site teams when developing a product. I think site team’s knowledge and insights of their communities and population would make a huge difference in product selection and in identifying key attributes needed for acceptability and adherence to a particular intervention.

What would you say to young women who might be interested in science or research as a career?

Interest in science and an inquiring mind is critical. If you have these qualities and have the passion, tenacity and determination to pursue a career where you may not always get the desired answer but have the commitment to make a difference in the lives of people, albeit in a small way, then you should definitely pursue a science career.  Once you have developed your niche of expertise, the world is your oyster and you can reach even greater heights of scientific excellence. Love of the job, passion, drive and tenacity are critical traits to have for scientific excellence.

Editors Note: Thank you for all that you do Prof. Ramjee and for giving us a bit of your time.

Prof. Gita Ramjee is the Clinical Trials Unit Principal Investigator and Unit Director of the HIV Prevention Research Unit of the South African Medical Research Council in Durban, South Africa, and Co-Chair of the HVTN Efficacy Trials Working Group.