Professor Michael Malim, FRS

Doctor of Science Professor Michael Malim

Tuesday 13 July 2010 - Orator: Professor Peter Mathieson 

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

In awarding an honorary degree, the University of Bristol might be saying one of many things.  We might be congratulating the graduand on the excellence they have displayed in their particular field; we might be thanking a graduand who has contributed to the life of our University in an exceptional way; we might be presenting the graduand to our new graduates and their families as an inspiring role model; or we might be showing off the progress of one of our own graduates, since they left our institution to step out into the world.

To our honorary graduand today we are saying more than one of these things.  Michael Malim graduated from this University in 1984, with a degree in Biochemistry.  He has gone on to have a glittering scientific career and is now Professor of Infectious Diseases at King’s College London School of Medicine.  His contribution to the field of research into the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, is internationally recognised. Moreover, he is the perfect role model for our new graduates, whether or not they are thinking of a career in research, in tenacity, conscientiousness and humility.

HIV was first identified as the causative agent of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS, in 1984, the year Michael graduated. The disease currently infects over 30 million people worldwide, causes around two million deaths per year globally and is responsible for 14 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone. I have first-hand experience from working in sub-Saharan Africa, home to two-thirds of the world’s HIV-infected people, of the devastation that is brought by HIV, and I know that it brings great comfort to those afflicted by the disease and its consequences that in the developed world, some of the greatest scientific brains have devoted themselves to the study of the virus and the design of strategies to combat its effects.

Michael Malim was responsible, in 2002, for a finding that dramatically shifted the understanding of the disease. He worked on a defence system that the virus has to overcome before it can survive in human cells. At first, this work was greeted with scepticism by many, including funding bodies, but Michael persisted, saying that he doesn’t give up on something just because it is difficult. The findings subsequently led to publications in the top scientific journals, to various prizes and to his election as Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007. He is not satisfied however, because the work has not yet led to successful therapeutic strategies against HIV and that remains his ultimate goal: there are millions in the world that should thank him for his commitment and determination.

Michael Malim was born in Gorleston-on-Sea in Norfolk, then spent his childhood in Eastbourne in East Sussex. He tells me that there was nothing in his family background or his schooldays to hint at the scientific career to come. It is alleged that he was a thorn in his teachers’ sides and that he pursued science subjects because these were the only ones in which he was allowed to stay in the classroom. He chose Bristol for his first degree because he recognised that it had one of the best departments of Biochemistry in the land (still true today!). He says that he first became interested in the virus that later became known as HIV after reading the early reports of an unexplained immune deficiency syndrome in the early 1980s. He then studied for a DPhil at Oxford University, graduating in 1987.

He joined (or perhaps led) the brain drain, going to Duke University in the United States as a post-doctoral fellow. In five years there, he published an incredible 25 papers including 10 in which he was the first author, with two in Nature, three in Cell and three in the Journal of Experimental Medicine: these are amongst the very best scientific journals in the world. He then moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and spent nine years there. He says he was thoroughly “Americanized” by then but despite that chose to return to London when the opportunity arose in 2001 for him to head up the new Department of Infectious Diseases at King’s, where he remains to this day.

Michael Malim has a reputation as a practical joker: indeed this seems to be prominent amongst HIV researchers, who as well as being very competitive about who can understand the virus best, develop new therapeutic approaches most effectively or make fastest progress towards a vaccine, also compete on who can sabotage each other’s sandwiches, move mattresses into bath-tubs in hotel rooms and set one another’s alarm clocks to go off in the middle of the night. He is also credited by one of his colleagues with a cure for jetlag after transatlantic flights: three beers on the plane and two after landing! Mr Vice-Chancellor, I should stress at this point that the University of Bristol would not extend Michael’s status of ‘role model’ to any of these activities.

Mike lists as his “recreations”: parenting, gentle sports, retired varsity golfer, cuisine, achievable DIY, cycling, hiking and bridge.  When asked what he is most proud of, he replies his wife, geneticist Rebecca Oakey and his two children George and Jess, all of whom we are delighted to welcome here today.

Michael Malim’s work on HIV’s ability to infect human cells, divide in them and resist the body’s defence mechanisms is exciting, novel and potentially very powerful in attempts to help the human body to resist the virus. He has received numerous awards and yet says that he is honoured and humbled, indeed puzzled, by the decision of the University of Bristol to award him an honorary degree. He received an Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation Scientist Award in 2001, was elected as Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2003, Fellow of the American Society of Microbiology in 2005, member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 2005, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007. Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Michael Malim, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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