Charles Rotimi, PhD, the newly minted scientific director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), has two passions: genomics and fighting health inequity. He has spent his career working to make medical research—genomics research, specifically—a global enterprise that benefits all human populations—“not just the rich ones.”
Born in Nigeria, Rotimi came to the United States in the 1980s to continue his education. Twenty years ago, when the Human Genome Project was taking the world by storm, he dreamt of a program that would engage African scientists in the genomic revolution. He had concerns that, without one, the gains genomics was making in understanding biology and medicine would not benefit populations across the African continent.
With this in mind, Rotimi founded the African Society of Human Genetics. When the society started, as an “African Genome Project” of sorts, its organizers did not know where they would find financial support. “We were just dreaming,” Rotimi recalls. But their dream started to come into focus when the group engaged the Wellcome Trust and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Rotimi eventually got the attention of Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the NHGRI at the time. In 2007, Rotimi invited Collins to give the keynote at the Annual Meeting for the African Society for Human Genetics. To Rotimi’s surprise, Collins agreed, and traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to attend the meeting. Collins was more than receptive to Rotimi’s ideas. He quickly became the program’s champion.
To those who knew Collins, his interest in buoying science in Africa came as no surprise. Earlier in his career, Collins practiced medicine in Nigeria, creating a connection to the continent and developing a commitment to increasing its access to medical care and science.
Collins returned from the meeting in Cairo with a fervent interest in the program. He sought out allies, including Eric Green, MD, PhD, current director of the NHGRI who was, at that time, the Institute’s scientific director. Others jumped on board and became enthusiastic supporters, including Sir Jeremy James Farrar OBE FRCP FRS FMedSci, director of the Wellcome Trust, as well as Mark Guyer, PhD, and Jane Peterson, PhD, both now retired from the NHGRI. There were many discussions and meetings, Green says, but the program couldn’t get traction because of the scale of what was needed.
Rotimi didn’t know, at that time, the stroke of luck that was about to come his way. Two years after the meeting in Cairo, the biggest supporter of his vision would be appointed director of the NIH. With that one move, Collins was given the podium and the bank account that were needed to get the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) program off the ground.