Ojikutu, Bisola

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Bisola Ojikutu


Medical researcher, educator

As a specialist in infectious diseases with a background in political science, Bisola Ojikutu has become a global leader in the fight to prevent the spread of the human immune deficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in South Africa. Ojikutu has worked with the U.S. and South African governments to develop community education programs and to promote health and safety practices to underserved communities. As the HIV epidemic continues to be one of the chief medical issues of the twenty-first century, Ojikutu's training and experience places her at the head of the global efforts to combat the disease.

Bisola Ojikutu was born on June 5, 1974, in the south side of Chicago, Illinois. Her father emigrated from Nigeria to the United States in 1964, where he met and married Ojikutu's mother in 1970. Her father attended classes to become a podiatrist, while her mother worked at a local bank. After finishing his training, Ojikutu's father obtained work in the Chicago Heights suburb.

Ojikutu attended Bloom Township High School, where she became an academic and student body leader and participated in a number of extracurricular activities, including sports clubs, mathematics competitions, and the school newspaper. Ojikutu credits her involvement in extracurricular activities as an important lesson in leadership that she carried with her into her professional career. Ojikutu gradated as valedictorian of her high school class.

From Political Science to Medical School

Ojikutu enrolled in Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked toward a degree in political science. The decision to attend Washington University was made partially to comply with her father's wishes. "I actually wanted to go to Stanford," Ojikutu recalled in an interview with Karen Hopkin of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, but because her father did not want her to travel as far away as California, she was urged toward a closer choice.

Ojikutu became involved in a number of community activities during her time in St. Louis, such as working with a nonprofit organization to create after-school programs for inner city children and working with teenage mothers at the St. Louis Regional Hospital. During her community activities, Ojikutu became disillusioned with the idea of entering politics to positively affect underserved communities. "I loved the work, and I thought it was great to try to get people mobilized to take action for themselves. But I also saw that I couldn't make a practical contribution," Ojikutu told Hopkin.

Ojikutu became intrigued watching friends and colleagues struggle with Washington University's medical school preparatory program. Driven by the need for a challenge and looking for a way to make a direct impact in the community, Ojikutu altered her focus and entered the premed program. The decision to enter medical school was unexpected for Ojikutu, who had never envisioned herself pursuing a career in science.

"To be absolutely honest, I really didn't like science. The way it was taught in school was uninspiring," Ojikutu told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). However, Ojikutu thrived on the challenge and displayed an aptitude for her premed classes.

Became Interested in the AIDS Epidemic

Ojikutu had her choice among a number of prominent medical school programs and eventually chose to attend Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Among her reasons for choosing Johns Hopkins was the school's history of promoting a number of prominent and "outspoken" African-American physicians, including pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, renowned cardiac surgeon Levi Watkins, and Claudia Lynn Thomas, who was the first African-American woman to become an orthopedist. In addition, Ojikutu felt that the Baltimore area was a city with a wide host of social issues, including rampant unemployment, poverty, and drug use. Ojikutu felt that, besides obtaining an excellent medical education, she could potentially help take part in the revitalization of the Baltimore community. "It was an environment I thought I could immerse myself in and learn from and maybe even make an impact on," she told CBB.

After receiving her MD from Johns Hopkins in 1999, Ojikutu was placed in an internal medicine residency program at Cornell University's New York Presbyterian Hospital. It was during her residency that Ojikutu first became involved in working with AIDS patients. She worked from 2000 to 2002 at the university's Harlem United Health Care Clinic, where she helped create a curriculum for training staff on how to care for HIV/AIDS patients in the community. In working with AIDS patients, Ojikutu found a way to combine her medical training with her desire to fill a leadership role and to have a political social impact.

In 2002, Ojikutu was accepted into the Harvard School of Public Health, where she earned a master of public health. Ojikutu continued working on HIV/AIDS issues and became a consultant for the MassHealth Expansion Program, helping to evaluate the success of the program in providing treatment and care to uninsured Massachusetts residents. During this time, Ojikutu began networking to find out about opportunities to work with patients in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic spread rapidly during the 1990s and where treatment and outreach facilities are relatively scarce in comparison to the United States. It was Bruce Walker of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland who first informed Ojikutu about the possibility of becoming involved in AIDS programs in South Africa. In the interview with Hopkin, Ojikutu remembered Walker's message, "He said, ‘Go there and help. I believe you have the energy. I believe you have the potential. Just do it.’"

At a Glance …

Born Bisola Ojikutu on June 5, 1974, in Chicago, IL. Education:Washington University in St. Louis, BA, 1995; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, MD, 1999; Harvard School of Public Health, MPH, 2003.

Career: New York Presbyterian Hospital (Cornell University), intern, 1999-2000; New York Presbyterian Hospital, resident, 2000-02; Harvard University Fellowship in Minority Health Policy, fellow, 2002-03; Massachusetts General Hospital/Brigham and Women's Hospital, infectious disease fellow, 2003-05; William J. Clinton Foundation's HIV/AIDS Initiative, South Africa, consulting team member, 2003-04; ARV Task Team, South Africa, consultant, 2003-04; Harvard Medical School, South Africa HIV/AIDS Programs, 2005-06, director; World Health Organization, Treat, Train, and Retain Campaign, consultant, 2006; Harvard Medical School, Office of International Programs, director, 2007—.

Memberships: Infectious Disease Society of America; International AIDS Society; National Medical Association.

Awards: Harriet S. Kluver Scholar Award, 1993; Howard Hughes Research Fellowship, 1994; Ralph Bunche Scholar Award for Academic Excellence, 1995; Charles Uribe Award for Outstanding Service to Underserved Communities, 2002; Massachusetts General Hospital, Clinician-Teacher Award, 2006.

Addresses: Office—401 Park Drive, Second Floor East, Boston, MA 02125.

Fought the AIDS Epidemic in South Africa

In 2003, Ojikutu traveled to Pretoria, South Africa, where she conducted research and worked as a consultant for the newly established William J. Clinton Foundation's HIV/AIDS Initiative. Ojikutu helped to prepare a nationwide training program for HIV/AIDS workers and health-care professionals and to accredit hospitals preparing to initiate an antiretroviral (ARV) treatment program in South Africa.

Ojikutu then traveled to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the province with the highest prevalence of HIV cases in the country, where she prepared South African medical workers for the transition to the ARV program. She designed the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial HIV Training Curriculum, which was established as the standard teaching system for specialists and volunteers treating patients in the region. Ojikutu also evaluated the effectiveness of the provincial treatment facilities and worked with local specialists to improve and enhance treatment guidelines. At McCord Hospital, in Durban, South Africa, Ojikutu saw patients directly and educated local physicians, nurses, and students in how to administer medications and track patient progress.

After a year, Ojikutu returned to the United States to finish her research, but was determined to return and continue working to improve patient care and treatment access in South Africa. "When I arrived in 2003, fewer than two thousand people were on antiretroviral therapy," she said to CBB, adding that over one million were in need of treatment in 2004. "It's a tragedy, but it makes you want to keep coming back, want to keep helping."

Directed Harvard's South Africa HIV/AIDS Programs

In 2004, Ojikutu enrolled in a second fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital, specializing in infectious diseases. When she finished the fellowship in 2005, she was asked to direct Harvard University Medical School's South Africa HIV/AIDS Programs.

From 2005 to 2006, Ojikutu traveled between Boston and South Africa, where she initiated a mobile training program for health-care workers operating in rural regions in South Africa. Ojikutu also sponsored Harvard University's undergraduate and medical student program, which sent students and residents to South Africa to perform volunteer work with regional hospitals. She directed the BroadReach Healthcare/Harvard University President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Initiative, which expanded primary ARV access and care in South Africa and worked with five important clinics and hospitals to improve patient care. Ojikutu was the founder and director of the Umndeni Family Care Program in South Africa, which was formed in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity and specializes in providing care for women and orphans in KwaZulu-Natal.

Ojikutu not only remained active in South Africa but also worked with patients and health-care administrators in Boston. She was the chairperson of the Third International HIV/AIDS Conference, which addressed the problems and potential solutions to administering ARV treatment both in impoverished international communities and in domestic communities. She also served as the editor-in-chief for a supplementary issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases, which focused on the ARV program in South Africa to educate the U.S. health-care community on the progress of the African AIDS epidemic.

In 2006, Ojikutu served as a consultant for the World Health Organization's Treat, Train, and Retain Campaign, which aims to improve health care in areas with limited access to medical supplies. Shortly after becoming an instructor in medicine for Harvard Medical School, she received the 2006 Clinician-Teacher Award from Massachusetts General Hospital, in recognition of both her pioneering work and her success and capability as an educator. In 2007, Ojikutu was selected to be the director of Harvard Medical School's Office of International Programs.

In October of 2007, Ojikutu continued functioning in both the United States and in South African communities as a chief researcher in the ongoing struggle to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. Even though Ojikutu never imagined during her childhood that she would be immersed in science, she has come to view medicine as the perfect complement to her interests in social service. As she told Hopkin, "I like the science now that I can translate it into patient care. That makes it real to me [and] motivates me to stay in this world."

Selected writings


(With Beth S. Lee and L. Shannon Holliday) "Osteoclasts Express the B2 Isoform of Vacuolar H+-ATPase Intracellularly and on Their Plasma Membranes," American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology, Vol. 270, 1996, pp. C382-388.

(With Valerie E. Stone) "Women, Inequality, and the Burden of HIV," New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 352, 2005, pp. 649-652.

"The Realities of Antiretroviral Therapy Roll-Out," Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 196, 2007, pp. S445-448.

(With Lisa R. Hirschhorn and William Rodriguez) "Research for Change: Using Implementation Research to Strengthen HIV Care and Treatment Scale-up in Resource-Limited Settings," Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 196, 2007, pp. S516-522.

(With Chris Jack and Gita Ramjee) "Provision of Antiretroviral Therapy in South Africa: Unique Challenges and Remaining Obstacles," Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 196, 2007. pp. S523-527.

(With Hui Zheng, Rochelle Walensky, Elena Losina, Kenneth Freedberg, Zhigang Lu, and Janet Giddy) "Predictors of Mortality in Patients Initiating Antiretroviral Therapy," Twenty-sixth International AIDS Conference, Toronto, Canada, August 18, 2006.



"Fellows Bios, 2002-2003," Commonwealth Fund/Harvard University Fellowship,http://www.mfdp.med.harvard.edu/fellows_faculty/cfhuf/fellows/bios/2002/bisola.htm (December 12, 2007).

Hopkin, Karen, "Serving the Community," Howard Hughes Medical Institute,http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/disease/ojikutu.html (December 12, 2007).

Ledger, Kate, "In a Sea of White Faces," Hopkins Medical News,http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/hmn/W98/sea.html (December 12, 2007).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through interviews with Bisola Ojikutu on October 21 and October 23, 2007.

—Micah L. Issitt