Dr Vivek Naranbhai, UKZN’s top scholar from the Medical School class of 2009, was recently elected as the 2011 KwaZulu-Natal Rhodes Scholar, one of 10 Rhodes scholars-elect from southern Africa. Naranbhai, at the young age of 24 years is about to submit his PhD in Immunology at UKZN after having concurrently gained a medical degree (MBChB) and an Honours Degree in Medical Microbiology. Undeterred by University rules, Vivek is the first UKZN medical graduate allowed to undertake and complete a concurrent second degree, and serves on a newly-formed University committee to formalise and encourage dual-degrees in medical training.
Under the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI), Naranbhai also co-leads the HIV Vaccine and Pathogenesis research programme at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and recently presented some of his PhD results at the 18th Conference on Retrovirus and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) held in Boston. Currently in his medical internship year, he will head to Oxford University for a second PhD/DPhil exploring computational biology and molecular genetic epidemiology in October 2011. He intends to pursue a lifetime in clinical medicine and translational research.
Heavily influenced by his Biotechnology professor mother and practising Paediatrician father, Naranbhai deems himself incredibly fortunate to be exposed to clinical research early in his career and is not shy to work hard. He undertook research fellowships and placements in epidemiology, public health and laboratory sciences with researchers affiliated to Columbia, Stanford and Harvard universities. He was the first MBChB student in South Africa to receive the annual Fogarty Ellison Fellowship in 2007 – an exciting clinical research training experience previously open to qualified medical doctors only. Naranbhai became a CAPRISA/LIFELAB research fellow whilst in medical training and held the KwaZulu-Natal Prestige Scholarship throughout his studies at UKZN.
Over the past seven years, Naranbhai has been mentored by, amongst others, Professors Quarraisha and Salim Abdool Karim. They describe him as ‘a brilliant, hard-working researcher who has a flair for science’ and speak of his unique ability to interrogate problems in multiple dimensions using his basic science skills to explore molecular and cellular intricacies right through to real-life clinical and epidemiological medicine, both at an individual patient, and also at a community level. ‘Whether he is working on natural killer cells in the laboratory, treating patients with tuberculosis in the clinic or studying risk factors for HIV in a rural community, he is innovative, rigorous and meticulous’, commented Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
At Oxford University, Naranbhai plans to broaden his already large skill set with the statistical and analytical skills of discovering genetic and genomic pathways of infectious diseases and proving their relevance with experimental data, based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. He hopes these combined skills, harnessed and honed over time, will equip him to pursue vaccine development and design of other interventional technologies to confront problems pertinent to South Africa and beyond.
Naranbhai speaks excitedly about the new opportunities open to him as a Rhodes scholar-elect. Having just returned from a short trip to Oxford, he speaks of a community of like-minded scholars from across the globe, the palpable history and tradition of Oxford University’s old sandstone buildings, green lawns and church steeples and a distinctive vigour for academic excellence and new knowledge. As a Rhodes scholar-elect, he finds himself already embraced by future colleagues, mentors and fellow students. He looks forward to being immersed in the richness of the place, and is already planning on attending open lectures on diverse disciplines so his mind is constantly stimulated and challenged.
Before leaving for Oxford, Naranbhai hopes to travel to rural towns in South Africa to promote Rhodes Scholarship opportunities. Acutely aware of his privileged background, He wishes to see more disadvantaged young men and women with extraordinary potential, a passion and a dream of being awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, join him on his journey.