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David Olufemi Olaleye: erudite virologist, excellent mentor and academic giant

David Olufemi Olaleye Courtesy African Digital Health Library

David Olufemi Olaleye, who passed away in July, made an impact on many lives. He was an excellent teacher and mentor – like a father to many. A defender of the oppressed and a forthright person, who stood for the truth.

He was a researcher par excellence, highly knowledgeable, intelligent and humble. He supervised my master’s project in 1993 and I was his first PhD student. I worked closely with him for almost 30 years and it’s been difficult to accept that he is no more.

Olaleye was born on 21 July 1954 in Ogbomoso, southwest Nigeria. He obtained his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1981, Master’s in Veterinary Science (Diagnostic Pathology) in 1983 and PhD in Virology in 1991, all from the University of Ibadan. He joined the university immediately after the mandatory one year national service in 1982 as Resident Veterinary Officer (Pathology). His journey as a virologist started when he was appointed lecturer in the Department of Virology, College of Medicine of the same university in 1986. He rose through the ranks and became Professor of Virology in 1995. He was appointed Consultant Virologist, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria on 11 March 1992 and held this position as specialist adviser until his death.

He was also an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, USA. He was a founding member of the African Forum for Research and Education in Health, a fellow of the African Academy of Science and a member of the America Science Honors Society (Sigma Xi).

With 27 years as a professor, he was one of the longest serving professors in the university. He contributed a great deal in this capacity. He held much of our institution’s history and memories. He served at different periods as head of department and dean. He was also on many committees of the university.

Excellent mentor

Olaleye’s interest in the career development of young people was outstanding. He had a passion for mentoring. I met him in 1993 when I came to Virology for my master’s programme. That first encounter is well documented in my inaugural lecture of 27 June 2019. It instilled in me the spirit and attitude of hard work, commitment and dedication, and the sense of being ever ready. He was the giant who provided the shoulders for me and many others to stand on.

He mentored many who are at the peak of their careers today. We are from diverse specialities, in different parts of the globe. In appreciation of his commitment, dedication and sacrifices made towards our career development, we celebrated him on his 60th birthday in 2014. I’m happy that he heard all the kind things we said about him.

Brilliant researcher

He was a great researcher. His research focused on diagnosis, characterisation and molecular epidemiology of various virus-related diseases in Nigeria. He had collaborators from different parts of the world and was principal investigator, co-principal investigator and investigator of many research grants. He attracted one of the highest number of grants - in terms of number and dollar value - to the University of Ibadan. He published over 200 papers in reputable international journals.

One of the major breakthroughs of his research was the first isolation and characterisation of the 2nd HIV recombinant form (CRF02) during his Fogarty International Research Fellowship programme at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, from September 1990 to September 1992. This virus strain, which he named IbNg (for Ibadan, Nigeria), has been shown to be the predominant strain circulating in West Africa and a good candidate for vaccine development in the region.

Forthright and selfless

Olaleye was honest, peace-loving and opposed injustice. Not only to him, but to anyone at all, even those he did not know. He was hardworking and he appreciated hard work. He would not trade merit for sentiments or tribalism.

He was a forthright person, outspoken and truthful. He respected everyone, irrespective of age and gender. He was humility personified.

Olaleye was a system person and a patriotic Nigerian who would always consider the system above his personal interest. He was at the forefront of Oyo State’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the state governor attested to this in his tribute.

He invested in capacity development, especially research capacity (infrastructural and human). With grants from the National Institute for Health in the USA, he spearheaded training on research capacity development for faculty and postgraduate students in six universities in Nigeria.

During his tenure as Dean of the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences from 2006 to 2010, he established a faculty conference, UniIbadan Conference of Biomedical Research. One of its objectives was to create a platform for young scientists in the country to show case their work, learn new ideas and establish networks required for career growth.

Some 20 years ago, no one wanted to come to the Department of Virology. But today, the story is different. Now people ask, why are you not in virology? It took the efforts, hard work, dedication and commitment of Olaleye to initiate changes to the department. With funds from his grants and support from funders, the department was renovated and equipped.

He successfully led a team of well-motivated academic and technical staff of the department to obtain World Health Organization Africa Region/ SLIPTA laboratory certification and the SANAS laboratory quality accreditation (ISO 15189) in 2018.

Professor David Olufemi Olaleye served his community selflessly and meritoriously. Sustaining his legacy is our assignment now.

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