Fikadu G. Tafesse, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, OHSU School of Medicine
Tafesse’s team seeks to understand how viruses get past our immune systems during infection. He is pictured here in his lab wearing the full protective gear necessary for studying infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and viruses from the family Flaviviridae, which includes zika, dengue and yellow fever.
Why did you choose to study infectious diseases?
My upbringing played a significant role in the kind of science I chose to pursue. I grew up in Ethiopia, and saw many close friends, family members and neighbors die of infectious diseases, mostly HIV and tuberculosis. Back then, there was no hope. It was my dream to understand how pathogens cause disease, and to be part of the team that solves these global epidemics.
This is not just day-to-day work — it is a calling. I feel extremely lucky to be doing this work at OHSU. Science requires patience but every experiment teaches us something. There are many small excitements along the way — it keeps you going.
What led you to OHSU?
I earned my undergraduate degree in agriculture in Ethiopia, learning how to grow crops — basic farming. After graduation, I decided to go to Europe to gain more experience and ended up going to Germany for a master’s degree in horticulture. This was my first introduction to plant biotechnology and for my master’s thesis I worked on a gene family of phospholipases that modify membranes in plants.
I always wanted to go back home to Ethiopia; I never thought of staying in Europe or moving to the U.S. But during the second year of my master’s program, a friend who was getting his Ph.D. in epigenetics asked me to take pictures during his thesis defense. Up to that point, I knew very little about his field but when I heard him talk about DNA methylation and the role it plays in cancer development, I was hooked. In fact, I completely forgot to take pictures because I was so interested in the science! This made me want to go further with my studies before I went back home.
I applied to Ph.D. programs and eventually ended up at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. There, I studied under Joost Holthuis and Gerrit van Meer, two lipid biologists. When I joined the lab, I had no idea they were world-renowned because I hadn’t been in the field. I was very fortunate to learn about lipid chemistry and biochemistry from them. I went on to do my postdoc at the Whitehead Institute at MIT and then went to the Ragon Institute at Harvard for more than a year before coming to OHSU.
What kind of impact would you like to make?
I hope that what I’m doing can have an impact not only in my home country but other developing countries as well. I am about to travel to Ethiopia to give a seminar at an infectious disease center there. My goal is to establish collaborations in Ethiopia and other African countries where these diseases are epidemic. It’s important to connect the work to the place where the real problem is – that’s my long term goal.