A seat at the table
Mavis Agbandje-McKenna selected as NIH subcommittee member
By John Pastor
For Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D., the journey to becoming a leading authority in virology began in the unlikeliest of places — a small village in Nigeria, where she grew up — and led her to the UF College of Medicine, where she directs the Center for Structural Biology.
And now it has taken her to the upper strata of the National Institutes of Health, as a member of the Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Subcommittee of the National Advisory Allergy and Infectious Diseases Council.
While it is significant to be chosen for NIH study sections, Agbandje-McKenna’s council membership is a step above. She helps determine the country’s research direction and advocates for potentially high-impact research proposals that have been overlooked for funding.
“People in scientific fields pay attention to institutions that have faculty on the NIAID council,” said James B. Flanegan, Ph.D., chair of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. “Dr. Agbandje-McKenna’s seat at that table enhances UF’s ability to recruit the best students and faculty, and it connects us with the leading institute focused on vaccine research, biodefense and infectious diseases. It is directly responsible for protecting and improving the health of millions of people in the United States and the world.”
Chosen for her expertise in virology and structural biology, Agbandje-McKenna is one of the council’s 18 experts who review applications that need special consideration.
“Out of a 100 research proposals, only about a dozen make the grade. That’s not a lot,” she said. “Hopefully I can get an idea or two about research trends and how and why proposals are chosen for funding. Such information is helpful for future grant preparations.”
Agbandje-McKenna, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, began learning the institute’s ropes at an orientation in late January, led by Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
“One of the first items was an update on HPV vaccine,” she said. “It didn’t work, and we need to figure out why. As scientists, it is important that we don’t just talk about our successes, we need to talk about problems so we don’t waste time on things that aren’t working.”
Curiosity about “how things work” seeded Agbandje-McKenna’s interest in science. She left Nigeria at age 11 for England — not knowing a word of English — and went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of London. She mastered a technique called X-ray crystallography that reveals the 3-D structures of viruses — vital knowledge in efforts to bring gene therapy to the bedside or to reveal how harmless viruses become dangerous.
But she does not work alone. Alongside her is a lab full of graduate and undergraduate students.
“She is very nurturing and inspiring,” said Shweta Kailasan, a second-year graduate student of biochemistry and molecular biology. “We share ideas and help each other with projects — she has brought us together as a team.”
The dynamic works for the College of Medicine and the students.
“Essentially, she is training our future faculty,” Flanegan said. “And if you are a student, when you can say you’ve done research with someone as respected in the field as Mavis, it influences your whole career.”