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Winter 1999

The Scientist and the Cure
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Janis Giorgi is fighting to find a vaccine against AIDS. But outside of the lab she is engaged in a struggle on another front -- to save her own life

By Mona Gable

In the enticing beauty and tranquility of Santa Fe, Janis Giorgi is worrying over a scientific puzzle.

"I just don't get it," she says suddenly, shaking her head of short black curls. "Why does the virus come back to the same level as before?"

It's 11 p.m. on a chill October night and Giorgi, clad in a white silk dressing gown, her bare feet propped on a table, a glass of Merlot in one hand, is referring to HIV, the maddeningly clever virus that causes AIDS. It's a topic that frequently occupies her curious mind. Even here, in this charming adobe cottage, hundreds of miles from her 12th-floor lab in the Factor building at UCLA, the scientist in her can't be still.

Some of that obsession is understandable. Giorgi has come to this quaint New Mexico town to speak at the Santa Fe Institute, a prestigious think-tank that brings together scholars of various disciplines to work out problems of society and science. Two hours earlier, the 52-year-old immunologist, wearing a stylish black suit, was on stage, explaining to an audience her lab's amazing findings concerning people's resistance to HIV. For 15 years, she has been involved with the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, or MACS, one of the most significant long-term investigations of HIV and AIDS, trying to discern the specific ways in which the immune system protects against the deadly virus. Among her other achievements, Giorgi was the first to discover that different people respond differently to HIV.

It's a measure of her quiet confidence that 15 minutes before she was supposed to leave for her lecture, Giorgi was not going over her notes or getting dressed. Instead, one of the world's leading immunologists was standing over a hot, greasy pan, frying up a batch of chicken livers for her friends. Besides science, Giorgi's other passion is cooking. Not surprisingly, she's good at it.

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