James Hildreth’s mother once told him that his circumstance did not limit his possibilities. He’s lived his life by that pronouncement, overcoming disparities and significant loss at a young age to become one of the most influential HIV doctors in the world.
“I was 11 when I lost my father,” recalls Hildreth. “He was very ill and received little medical attention. We were black and poor, living in the South, and healthcare for people of that description wasn’t necessarily obtainable. I was inspired to pursue a career in medicine addressing issues related to access of care.”
Hildreth’s training in immunology drew him to HIV research in 1986. Once he realized the virus disproportionately affected people of color — two-thirds of the 35 million people infected are of African descent — finding an answer became even more personal to him. A key discovery made by Hildreth and his research team at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities led to the development of topical creams that hold great promise for blocking HIV infection.
As dean of the College of Biological Sciences and professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis, Hildreth continues searching for clues to eliminate AIDS. Mentorship and research experience changed his life as an undergraduate, so he’s made it a priority to offer similar opportunities for UC Davis students in his lab.
Beyond mastering techniques and assisting in research projects, undergraduates are encouraged to collaborate across cultures and disciplines. “The discovery of new knowledge is the thing that holds us all together,” says Hildreth, “and Davis has a wonderful culture of collaboration. That’s how the big problems are going to be solved.”