First off, please don’t ask me to attempt to pronounce this one. But don’t let my complete lack of French ability keep you from reading about this Nobel Prize-winning virologist!
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a native of Paris, earned her PhD at the University of Paris in 1974. Beginning in her early childhood days, she always displayed a passion for science. It was both her favorite and best subject in school. This, combined with her love of research discovered as an undergraduate, drove her to a scientific research career that has been primarily with the Pasteur Institute (yes, that Pasteur, the guy who gave us long-lasting dairy foods) but also included the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute in the U.S.
In the late 1970s she joined Luc Montagnier’s group at the Pasteur Institute to work on retroviruses. In 1982, a virologist at a hospital in Paris asked their group to look into the possibility of a retrovirus being the problem causing an epidemic disease that was on the rise and beginning to make headlines: the disease that would eventually be named AIDS.
1983 was the first year she worked full time on AIDS research. That was the year her group was able to isolate, describe, and even photograph the HIV virus. She was first author on the paper that reported the discovery of the virus behind the AIDS epidemic. In 1992 she moved up to head of the Biology of Retroviruses unit at the Pasteur Institute.
A great lover of nature, she ventured from the laboratory whenever possible. She frequently traveled to the places where AIDS was widespread or having the most devastating effects, including the Central African Republic and Vietnam. She visited patients dying of the disease in hospitals from Paris to San Francisco. She did not let the disease remain just a thing to be studied in a laboratory, but saw its very real and devastating impacts in person. It is very unusual for disease researchers to actually interact with patients.
In 2008 she and Luc Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for that initial discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The discovery and isolation of the virus was a tremendous first step in the ongoing fight against AIDS, and she is currently still working to achieve both things that could defeat AIDS: a vaccine, and a functional cure. She wouldn’t be satisfied with that, though – she also insists on continuing searching for a total cure once those first two are achieved.
She was often discouraged on her path to her chosen career by men who thought such scientific research was not the place for a woman. Thirty years later, the world is incredibly fortunate that such a driven person followed her passion and is still, in her late 60s, working to combat one of the most frightening and devastating diseases of our lifetimes.