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Professor Tolullah Oni


Professor Tolullah Oni is an urban epidemiologist at the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit and a Public Health Physician Scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK. She is also a Clinical Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge Global Public Health Research programme. Moreover, she is an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa.

Oni was born in Lagos, the most populous city of Nigeria. When she was seven years old, she watched a television documentary about cardiac surgery, and has since then wanted to be a paediatric cardiac surgeon. Owing to this childhood dream of hers, she trained in medicine with international heath at University College London and received her bachelor’s in 2001.

While training as a house surgeon in different hospitals in the UK and Australia, starting with HIV work in London, where Oni aimed to research and understands what the drivers of the disease were and their impact on health. This interest of hers brought her to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where she spent seven years in a research post studying TB diagnostics and working with HIV patients at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, subsequently getting her Master’s in Public Health (Epidemiology) during this period.

During that same period, Oni completed her PhD in 2012 from Imperial College London. After her time at UCT, she spent eleven years carrying out research in South Africa, where completed her Public Health Medical Speciality Training as a Fellow of the College of Public Health Medicine, South Africa in 2015. This was the first time she got a chance to understand populations and their health, which helped her realize that other factors also influence health. This motivated her to understand what these influences mean at a local, national and global level.

Currently, her research focusses on the link between chronic infectious and chronic non-infectious diseases, and the impact of the socio-economic and physical environment on the health profile of people living in urban but informal colonies.

Oni took up her current position at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine, UCT, in 2014 and is responsible for part of the medical school’s undergraduate teaching curriculum. She has successfully pushed for UCT to create its own intercalated BSc(Hons) on global public health, which is the first of its kind on the African continent.

Professor Oni has won numerous awards including election to the South African Young Academy of Science, where she currently serves as the co-chair of the Executive Committee. She was also elected to the Young Physicians Leadership Programme by the Inter-Academy Medical Panel and the World Academy of Science. She is a Next Einstein Forum Fellow and is a World Economic Forum Young Scientist. She also received the Claude Leon Merit and Carnegie “Next Generation of African Academics” research awards.

In South Africa, Oni established a Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (RICHE), conducting transdisciplinary urban health research, which is focused on generating evidence to support development and the implementation of healthy public policies in rapidly growing cities, with a focus on Africa. According to Oni, RICHE is a collaboration of researchers from UCT across different disciplines that speak to this idea of cities’ health, urban health and equity.

She has published over 40 manuscripts in high-impact journals, and has given presentations at international academic (urban health, HIV, TB) and non-academic meetings including the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting, Davos, and the United Nations High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development, New York.

She serves on many advisory boards including the African Academy of Science Open Research Platform and Future Earth. She is an editorial board member of Lancet Planetary Health, Cities and Health, and the Journal of Urban Health. She was profiled in the Lancet journal in 2016 and is also a Fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Oni attributes her success to her parents and family who have never made a career in the sciences. Her advice to young students is to find role models in their field and to not hesitate from contacting them to discuss their curiosities and research interests. She believes that academics often want to give back, and therefore, she connects with students by making herself accessible and by putting herself in their shoes.

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