Remembering a Legacy: Rev. Dr. A. Oveta Fuller
A. Oveta Fuller, Ph.D., was a distinguished virologist, science communicator, bioethicist and public health advocate. At the time of her death, she was an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, faculty in the African Studies Center at the University of Michigan and a member of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee for the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She was an ordained minister in the historic African Methodist Episcopal (AME) tradition, adjunct faculty at Payne Theological Seminary and served as science advisor for the global AME organization. Her work had global impact, as her ‘Trusted Messenger’ intervention helped fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and several African countries. She was a Ford Foundation Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar and the epitome of Black History.
Fuller was born Aug. 31, 1955 in North Carolina, the daughter of a farmer and a teacher. Her curiosity was nurtured in her family, who made education a priority. She often recalled how her parents encouraged and empowered her and her siblings (who grew up to be scientists and engineers) in their academic interests. “My parents told me I can do anything,” she said. Their affirmations cultivated a sustained sense of internal validation that Fuller needed to follow her dreams and overcome obstacles that others would lay in her path.
Growing up during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, she was no stranger to the obstruction and discrimination central to the lived experience of Black Americans. While the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 declared that segregation of public schools was unlawful, many states found ways to delay integration until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated desegregation as a precondition for federal funding. It was during this time that Fuller started her formal education and attended integrated middle and high schools.
An enthusiastic learner and excellent student, Fuller decided to attend college, with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as her top choice. When she communicated this to her high school guidance counselor, she was told, “You won’t make it there, that’s not for you.” But Fuller was undeterred. Reflecting on this experience, she often remarked, “If you tell me I can’t do something, you’ve motivated me to do exactly that.”
True to her word, Fuller matriculated to UNC in the 1970s on a full scholarship. She majored in biology but also loved English and journalism. Again, she faced discrimination and a hostile culture. Her assigned roommate refused to share a room with her, and by the end of her first semester, only 1 other Black woman student remained in her dormitory.
In her junior year of college, Fuller was drawn to microbiology while hearing about the Philadelphia outbreak of what was later named Legionnaires’ Disease. She was fascinated by the discovery of the microorganisms Legionella pneumophila and other Legionella sp. and how they caused disease. While writing a research paper on the topic, she realized a desire to understand microorganisms at the molecular level. Upon completion of her undergraduate degree, she stayed at UNC to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology. Her dissertation research focused on the structure and function of the plant toxins, abrin and ricin.
While in graduate school, she was struck by the absence of Black faculty in academic science, despite the high level of scientific interest and curiosity of the Black community. She decided to pursue a career in academic research, in part, because she saw the need for more Black faculty and role models for Black students. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago, where she investigated mechanisms of herpesvirus entry into host cells, she became the first Black woman faculty member hired in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School. She would later become the first woman to receive tenure in the department.
Building upon her postdoctoral work, Fuller’s lab at the University of Michigan studied the mechanisms of viral cellular entry and early infection of herpes simplex virus (HSV). In 2005, her research group discovered the B5 receptor, as a new class of HSV receptors that performs an important function in viral binding and entry, and a promising target for potential antiviral treatments.
As the HIV/AIDS global epidemic accelerated, Fuller became increasingly concerned about the path of devastation and stigma wrought by this new disease. She expanded her research focus to include questions about HIV viral entry. At the 2000 meeting of the American Society for Virology, she attended a seminar that discussed the transmission of HIV from mother to child at first feeding that would change the course of her career. She was greatly impacted by the consequences of disparities in HIV testing, prevention and treatment, particularly in African countries. She saw how the lack of effective science communication was directly linked to the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Through her connection to the global AME community, she was acutely aware of the human cost and urgent need for community engagement. Fuller was focused on making sure that critical scientific information and evidence-based recommendations were understood by the broader public. This led to her development and implementation of the Trusted Messengers intervention program.
Fuller knew that an effective way to reach a community is to understand its structure and values. Given the importance of faith to Black communities, she identified networks of faith leaders at the center of these communities who, together, had the reach and influence to effect change. These leaders were often already engaged in the epidemic due to their roles in community care, Fuller stated that “they bury people who die, they console families who lose sons and daughters, they help find homes for vulnerable children and help parents and grandparents provide for younger children through family and community.” Her mission was “...to take some of the science discoveries we teach to medical students and undergrads and move them into the community to dispel misconceptions that paralyze people from doing what works.”
Thanks to her trailblazing work during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, starting in the early 2000s and spanning 2 decades, Fuller was ready and willing to leap into action when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020. As part of the FDA Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, Fuller was instrumental in ensuring the safety, and subsequent emergency approval, of the COVID-19 vaccines later that year.
During the last 2 years of her life, she poured her time into dispelling misinformation and educating the public, particularly in communities of color, on the virology and pathogenesis of SARS-CoV2. She presented in over 100 panels, seminars, television and radio interviews between 2020-2021 alone, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Public Radio (NPR) and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science.
Despite her busy schedule, she also hosted numerous informal virtual information sessions to discuss safety measures and the importance of vaccination as protection from the virus. For this work and other lifetime achievements, Fuller was awarded the DAPCEP Inaugural “Wondermaker” Real McCoy Award in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics/Medicine in 2021 and the Sarah Goddard Power and Distinguished Public Service Awards from the University of Michigan in 2022.
In addition to being an amazing scientist, she was also a wife, mother of 3 and meaningful mentor to many. Throughout her career, Fuller trained more than 25 undergraduate and 15 graduate students in her lab. She sat on 27 doctoral thesis committees and unofficially mentored countless others along the way, many of whom were scientists of color and women. Fuller served as an inspiration to numerous trainees who had never had the opportunity of seeing a Black woman scientist. At the time of her death, Fuller was the sole tenured Black faculty member in her department. For those privileged to have been mentored by her, the message was clear: “follow your curiosity,” as her parents had once instilled in her, and “own your purpose.”
Fuller was unafraid to chart her own path in academia, having combined her scientific and faith backgrounds to orchestrate meaningful change in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and she encouraged her mentees to do the same. Her seemingly unconventional path serves as a reminder to others that sometimes the most meaningful careers happen when one steps outside of the line to draw a new one.
Fuller was a trailblazer in her ability to forge a new path in combining science and community outreach, leaving behind a blueprint for others wishing to do the same. As member of the Black Microbiologists Association’s (BMA) Advisory Committee, she once remarked, “I may have been the first, but my goal is to not be the last.” Through her academic and mentorship efforts over the last several decades, she has certainly created a legacy that will ensure just that.
Want to get involved with mentoring the next generation? Apply to mentor students for the ASM Future Leaders Mentoring Fellowship (FLMF).