Renowned Researcher Ho Speaks on AIDS, Activism

Speaking on his role as one of the preeminent AIDS researchers in the world, 1996 TIME Magazine Man of the Year Dr. David Ho addressed the Phillips Academy community with a presentation entitled, “Reflections of an Asian American Scientist”. Co-sponsored by Andover’s Chinese Department and the Asian Society, Tuesday’s lecture coincided with an HIV/AIDS conference that Dr. Ho is chairing this week in Boston with former President Bill Clinton. Dr. Ho has held the position of Scientific Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center since the Center’s founding in 1990. Under Dr. Ho’s direction, AIDS researchers across the globe have collaborated to publish groundbreaking studies examining such topics as HIV replication, the natural resistance of some individuals to HIV infection, and the reduction of HIV to undetectable levels in the body through combination drug therapy. In addition to his work on the AIDS epidemic, Ho is a professor, an activist for human rights, and a father to Jacqueline ’05. Born “Ho Da-i” in Taichung, Taiwan in 1952, Dr. Ho’s immigrated to America in 1956. Upon moving from T’ai-chung to an African-American neighborhood in central Los Angeles, Ho encountered a new language, a new name (“David”), a new home, and new neighbors. A very introverted teenager, he battled through the difficult adjustment period by focusing his energy on academics. He remarked, “All alone, I was the type of kid who was curious about things,” he said. “You could say it was that curiosity that drove me to be a scientist.” After high school, Dr. Ho attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. Upon receiving his undergraduate degree in physics, Dr. Ho attended Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ho was the chief medical resident in Los Angeles in the early 1980s when he first encountered AIDS. He began to work with patients, primarily homosexual men, who were admitted to the hospital with similar infectious complications. “We did not know what was going on with them,” he said.” Although Dr. Ho did not know about the syndrome or its imminent epidemic future, he had come face-to-face with what would later be characterized as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Personally affected by his patients and struggling for answers that no textbook could provide, Ho had found his calling. Despite initial discouragement from his colleagues, Dr. Ho became immersed in the study of this mysterious disease. Once the virus was identified as HIV in 1981, Dr. Ho narrowed his research and experimentation into the newly emerging field of retrovirology. His team of researchers proved that HIV is directly linked to many neurological conditions, such as dementia. They also identified the flu-like symptoms that are now used to help recognize the initial infection by HIV. Many of Dr. Ho’s initial projects were focused entirely on answering pertinent, patient-based questions. “I’m glad I had the conviction to stick to it with my passion,” he said. Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Ho spent his time in Boston and Los Angeles, pursuing the virus and the complications that come from AIDS-related infections. Having been involved in AIDS research from the very beginning, Dr. Ho was an expert in the field by 1990. Nonetheless, he was shocked by the invitation to head a newly established institute that would bring researchers together to pursue the HIV virus in a synergistic fashion, and to strategize ways to control and treat it. Throughout his presentation, Dr. Ho explained that Chinese-Americans are well represented in the sciences, engineering, and medicine fields, but few are offered or willing to take on major career leadership positions. He spoke of how the dramatic under-representation of Asians within boardrooms and CEO offices is an issue of great concern to the upcoming generation. During the mid-’90’s, most of Dr. Ho’s research involved measuring the activity of the HIV virus to understand how viral particles are produced. This research led him and his team to combat HIV by developing more potent combinations of drugs that upset the balance between virus and host. Though a cure for the disease has yet to be found, a strong control of the disease now seems possible. However, according to Dr. Ho, his job is not yet complete. Besides the obvious hope of finding a cure for AIDS, Dr. Ho also believes that next important step is in vaccine development and prevention. Nonetheless, Dr. Ho feels motivated by scientific developments and treatment advances in recent years, and optimistic about the direction researchers are headed. In the meantime, Dr. Ho is taking on responsibilities far beyond that of a typical scientist in addressing the AIDS crisis: advocating and raising awareness throughout the world.