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Dr. Charles Rotimi awarded academy medal for distinguished contributions in biomedical science

The New York Academy of Medicine honors NHGRI Scientific Director for advances in genetic epidemiology and efforts to enhance the diversity of the human genetics field.

Charles Rotimi, Ph.D., was awarded the Academy Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Science by the New York Academy of Medicine. This honor, established in 1929, recognizes investigators with sustained and impactful accomplishments in biomedical research and an interest in translating these findings to advance human health.

Dr. Rotimi is the scientific director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a role in which he directs the institute’s Intramural Research Program. He is also the director of the Trans-NIH Center for Genomics and Global Health (CRGGH) and an NIH Distinguished Investigator. He will be honored in a virtual event held by the New York Academy of Medicine on September 27, 2023.

The academy selected Dr. Rotimi for his scientific achievements and leadership of many crucial programs that improve ancestral diversity in research participants and the scientific workforce.

“Charles’ leadership, work, and achievements exemplify the spirit of this award,” said Ann Kurth, Ph.D., president of the New York Academy of Medicine, in an email. “His call to increase diversity in genomics as a matter of a social justice imperative is inspiring, and a reminder of the ways in which biomedical science can benefit the greater good.”

Previous awardees include Eric Lander, Ph.D., who was a major leader of the Human Genome Project, and Nancy Wexler, Ph.D., who played a central role in the discovery of the gene involved in Huntington’s disease.

“I’m extremely honored to be selected for this award,” said Dr. Rotimi. “It is gratifying to see that the call for diversity in genomics is being heard, and many international efforts are now underway to address this need.”

Charles’ leadership, work, and achievements exemplify the spirit of this award. His call to increase diversity in genomics as a matter of a social justice imperative is inspiring, and a reminder of the ways in which biomedical science can benefit the greater good.

Dr. Rotimi joined NHGRI in 2008 and, shortly thereafter, founded the trans-NIH Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health, a group that uses genomic tools to understand metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in different populations, with a focus on the African Americans and Africans.

As a genetic epidemiologist and genomics researcher, Dr. Rotimi leads a research group at NHGRI that has made novel discoveries and provided insight into population history, natural selection and health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. His group is exploring how genomic data from admixed groups and individuals of African ancestry has enhanced approaches to finding genomic variants for complex traits and uncovered ways in which ancestry can influence genetic findings.

Over the last several decades, Dr. Rotimi has spearheaded many international efforts to increase diversity in genetics and genomics.

During his time as director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University and prior to joining NIH, he was an important leader in the International HapMap Project, which sought to develop a map of human genomic variation. After working with African communities in Nigeria and Kenya, he became concerned that genomics projects were falling short of benefiting Africa since only a few African scientists were actively participating in these research efforts.

“In these scientific meetings, I realized that there were only one or two other people who looked like me,” said Dr. Rotimi. “These numbers really stuck with me, and I wanted to change that.”

The lack of diversity among genetic and genomic scientists motivated him to work with colleagues to form the African Society of Human Genetics, a forum for African researchers to convene and ensure that genomic advances benefited Africa in addition to the Global North. The idea of doing an African Genome Project blossomed into what is now known as the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative.

H3Africa, which started wrapping up in 2022, had 10 successful years that involved a consortium of nearly a thousand members and trainees in more than 30 countries. The initiative funded 51 projects and launched multiple research sites in countries across Africa, together enrolling over 100,000 African research participants, publishing nearly 700 scientific papers and uncovering more than three million previously unknown variants in the human genome.

With H3Africa coming to a close, Dr. Rotimi is working with Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., former director of NIH, and colleagues in Africa to build on the success of H3Africa by creating a network of centers for African scientists, called Genomic Centers of Excellence (GenCoE). This cross-continent project aims to include up to 10 centers and will focus on genomic applications, such as monitoring infectious agents and advancing genomics for precision medicine.

Since becoming NHGRI’s scientific director in 2021, Dr. Rotimi has made some organizational changes to the institute’s Intramural Research Program, which includes establishing the Metabolic Medicine Branch in 2021 and launching programs to build and retain a diverse genomics workforce, such as Immersive Summer Program for Research in Genomics (iSPRinG) and Future Leaders Advancing Genomic Sciences in Health Innovation Postdoctoral Program (FLAGSHIP).

“The scientific community has made wonderful strides, but there is still more to be done to increase the representation of diverse populations in genomics research and in the genomics workforce,” Dr. Rotimi says. “By studying the genomes of people from Africa, where humans originated, we can understand the full scope of human genomic variation and ensure that scientific advances benefit the global community.”

Last updated: September 13, 2023