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‘Tireless and fearless’: UNC community mourns loss of epidemiology professor

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Photo contributed by Vic Schoenbach.

Do what you like, what’s important and what’s right.”

Dr. Adaora "Ada" Alise Adimora shared these words as her guiding motto when she was interviewed on the podcast "A Different Kind of Leader" in December 2022. As a world-famous physician epidemiologist, advocate, teacher, mentor and mother, she did just that.

On Jan. 1,, Adimora passed away at age 67 after a yearslong battle with cancer. Her husband, Dr. Paul Alphonso Godley, passed in 2019 and she is survived by her two children, Alegro Nwanneka Adimora Godley and Bria Adimora Godley.

As evidenced by her 37-page curriculum vitae, Adimora's career was long and far-reaching.

In her 35-year career at UNC, Adimora was awarded the position of Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the School of Medicine and served as a professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. As an associate professor in 2003, she became the first African American woman in UNC’s Department of Medicine to receive tenure.

Adimora earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1977 and a doctor of medicine from Yale University in 1981. She later earned her master of public health in epidemiology from Gillings in 1993.

Adimora's commitment to helping others and rejecting inequality resonates in all her work, epidemiology professor Dr. Myron Cohen said.

“She was first and foremost a healer and a physician,” Cohen, who worked alongside Adimora for 30 years, said. “She had hundreds of loyal and loving patients.”

Adimora had over 25 years of clinical experience and dedicated her career to the investigation and treatment of HIV, according to the UNC Department of Medicine website. UNC Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and professor of medicine Dr. Joseph Eron Jr. said that Adimora started her career at a time when patients with HIV often died within months.

“She was actually part of that transformation of how we learned to take care of people living with HIV ­— and how we learned about the medicines that would work best for them — and really changed their life and their ability to survive with infection,” Eron said.

Cohen said Adimora was a force and advocate for the prevention and treatment of HIV infection among women, especially women of color.

“She was not to be taken lightly under any circumstance,” he said. “Ada was a role model for women faculty at UNC and especially the women in our infectious disease group.”

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky echoed Cohen’s sentiment. At Adimora's memorial service on Monday, Walensky said she has looked up to Adimora since they became friends about 10 years ago.

"As the newbie I would often watch Ada in awe,” she said. “[Adimora] didn't always speak up. But when she needed to, she was never shy to do so. She exuded the perfect balance between listening and hearing and digesting and then she had this laser-focused expertise and confidence to convey sometimes an unpopular dissenting — and often correct — viewpoint.”

Adimora’s research on the epidemiology of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV among women and minority populations brought her international attention in the public health community. In 2019, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, a highly regarded honor in the medical field.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former chief medical advisor to the president and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, recognized Adimora for her contributions to the NIH’s COVID-19 treatment guidelines in December 2021. She testified twice before congressional committees, lending her expertise in discussions about drug pricing and the role of incarceration in the spread of HIV among the Black Americans.

In addition to her accomplishments, Adimora was a mentor to countless students, Cohen said. She especially advocated for the placement of minorities in UNC’s physician training programs, Eron said.

“She felt that in order to change healthcare, you had to change the face of healthcare, and you needed to see more women or Black people in infectious disease and in positions of responsibility and leadership within medicine,” he said.

At Monday's service, friends and family recalled Adimora’s wit, humor, willpower and directness as her biggest strengths.

“Ada worked at UNC as a national and international leader for more than three decades,” Cohen and Eron wrote in a joint email announcing Adimora’s passing. “She was committed to improving the care of underserved populations and she was a tireless and fearless advocate for women living with HIV and at risk for HIV.”

At her service, Walensky spoke alongside others including Cohen, sociologist Judith Auerbach and Adimora’s daughter.

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“Even in her medicated state, she was wise and she encouraged me to be disruptive and a champion for good,” Walensky said.

@adelepmorris17

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