Dr. Julie Overbaugh elected to American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Her HIV research revealed factors that influence HIV transmission
Woman in black sweater and grey scarf with short grey hair stands in the foreground while two young women do labwork in the background.
Dr. Julie Overbaugh Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences today announced its 2020 class of new members, including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center‘s Dr. Julie Overbaugh, who studies factors that shape HIV transmission.

The Academy was established in 1780 by Founding Fathers John Adams, John Hancock and others to advance the common good and recognize accomplished individuals. Members are elected by their peers and often join with other members to produce cross-disciplinary studies that inform public policy.

“I think that anybody who gets these just feels incredibly honored. Also, as far as I'm concerned, it's an honor for my lab group, past and present, because they're the ones whose work was really part of this recognition,” Overbaugh said. “And it’s not just my own lab group. I think one of the things we're known for is our collaboration with the Kenya team. To me, the great thing about something like this is recognizing the team and our approach to science.”

Collaborating to understand how HIV spreads among vulnerable people

Overbaugh studies HIV transmission in vulnerable people, including commercial sex workers and infants born to mothers with HIV. In the 1990s, before the advent and widespread availability of antiretroviral drugs, she was part of the joint Kenya-U.S. team that demonstrated that HIV could be transmitted through breast milk. For over 25 years, she’s participated in a rich collaboration with Kenyan and University of Washington scientists to foster a longstanding cohort of commercial sex workers who generously help researchers better understand HIV risk and transmission.

Overbaugh’s work also highlighted how factors like injectable hormonal contraceptives and certain sexually transmitted infections can influence risk of HIV infection and revealed aspects of maternal anti-HIV immunity that reduce transmission from mother to child. Her research in infants could help inform HIV vaccine design by showing how potent immune proteins that protect against HIV infection, called neutralizing antibodies, can be created quickly after infection

Advancing the public good

The mission of the Academy is not merely to recognize outstanding individuals, but to advance the public good. Overbaugh, who holds the Endowed Chair for Graduate Education at the Hutch, shares these values. She is as renowned for her efforts in graduate mentorship and training as she is for her world-class science. Issues of equity and diversity in science are particular areas of interest, she said.

As one of this year’s 276 new members, Overbaugh joins a class that includes many impressive women, such as lawyer, academic and activist Anita Hill; and singer, songwriter and activist Joan Baez. She is the 12th Hutch faculty member elected to the Academy and the latest in a spate of outstanding women researchers from the Hutch to be elected.

When Fred Hutch HPV researcher Dr. Denise Galloway was elected last year, Overbaugh loaned her a scarf for the membership ceremony.

“I think it gave me good karma,” she said.

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

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