ISU Magazine

Volume 40 | Number 2 | Spring/Summer 2010

Rafi Ahmed waves at the crowd as he is recognized by President Arthur Vailas at halftime of the 2009 Homecoming football game.

Photo by ISU Photographic Services/Julie Hillebrant

Alumnus Ahmed Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Spring 2010 Issue | By Andrew Taylor


Idaho State University alumnus Rafi Ahmed, current director of the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences because of his distinguished and continuing achievements in original science.

He was honored last fall at Idaho State University Homecoming with the Distinguished Alumni award.

The 60-year-old native of Hyderabad, India, joked about his initial choosing of Idaho State University for his undergraduate and master’s education.

“I’m originally from India, and how I ended up in Pocatello is one of the great mysteries of my life,” Ahmed said. “But I had a great time there. I was in my formative years as a young man learning about how an American education worked, and I received good guidance at Idaho State. The courses I took there were fantastic, as good as any I took anywhere. ISU basically prepared me for what I did later.”

When he was elected to the Academy he was one of 72 new members and 18 foreign associates elected.

Ahmed is considered one of the world’s leading immunologists and has made groundbreaking discoveries on immune memory that have laid the foundation for understanding vaccine-induced immune responses. Rejuvenating the immune response to chronic viral infections is his most recent work focus. This research has the potential to help combat HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. It also has potential for treatment of cancers.

“This is the highest honor your peers can bestow upon you, so that is a wonderful thing,” said Ahmed, who earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1972 and a master’s degree in microbiology in 1974 from Idaho State University. “I love my research and it is my passion. Some people get lucky, I guess.”

Ahmed went on to earn his doctorate at Harvard University and has had a long and distinguished research career at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine and Emory University.

“Idaho State University is very proud of Dr. Ahmed’s accomplishments and to have the opportunity to honor him for his great scientific achievements,” said Idaho State University President Arthur C. Vailas. “We want to thank him for recognizing ISU for providing him a high quality education that contributed to his future development as one of the world’s top medical scientists in infectious diseases.”

Academy membership is composed of approximately 2,100 members and 380 foreign associates, of whom nearly 200 have won Nobel Prizes. Election to the Academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a scientist or engineer. The Academy is governed by a council consisting of 12 members, called councilors, and five officers, elected from among the Academy membership.

Ahmed is professor of microbiology and immunology in the Emory University School of Medicine. He founded and directs the Emory Vaccine Center. He is a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and is associate director of vaccine science for the Emory Center for AIDS Research.

“My interest in understanding vaccines centers on how our immune systems remember something that has happened 20 or 30 years ago, such as someone having a smallpox vaccine as a kid but they’re still protected many years later,” Ahmed said. “This has been the focus of my efforts the last 15 or 20 years and we’re starting to get to the heart of the matter.”

Training new scientists is and has been as important to Ahmed as his own research.

“I’ve helped train more than 30 graduate and postdoctoral students, some who now have their own research projects and labs,” Ahmed said. “One of the best legacies for me is the training of the next generation of scientists.”

Ahmed and his wife, Lala, have two children, a son, Hasan, and a daughter, Fatima.