In Memoriam: Teri Liegler, Long-Time HIV/AIDS Researcher

Teri Liegler, PhD
Teri Liegler, PhD, professor of medicine, on the campus of SF General Hospital in 2015.

After an eighteen month-long fight with glioblastoma, Teri Liegler, PhD, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, died on September 26. She was 61 years old.

Liegler devoted her career to curbing the HIV epidemic. In 1999, she became director of the Core Virology Lab at Gladstone Institutes, where she worked to help research programs understand HIV/AIDS. Liegler joined UCSF faculty in 2005, where she made key contributions to our understanding of HIV. She was an investigator in the landmark iPrEx study, one of the first studies to show that PrEP—an HIV medicine that reduces the risk of infection—was effective and safe in humans. Since 2014, Liegler worked as an investigator on the SEARCH study, where she continued to work to end the global epidemic.

“To me, the ultimate goal was always to work in (HIV) research at UCSF,” said Liegler in an August 2018 interview. “In the field of HIV, there is no better place than here at UCSF.”

Born in Chicago, Liegler moved as a child to Anaheim, where she dreamed of a career in healthcare. “I always wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “I wanted to help patients.” Liegler would go on to undergraduate studies at UC Irvine and graduate studies at UC Berkeley, where she earned a PhD in genetics. As a post-doctoral fellow at Gladstone in the late 1980s, Liegler drew inspiration from San Francisco’s HIV epidemic to shift her focus to this mysterious new virus—specifically how it developed.

“It was a difficult, eye-opening experience,” she said of her early work in HIV research. “Many coworkers were HIV positive. A lot of them died because of HIV.”

Leigler’s career in HIV research is inspiring for many reasons, including a significant appreciation for collaboration. “The big questions require collaborations with diverse people,” said Liegler. “The (AIDS epidemic) is so complex. Without (collaboration), you’re like a blindfolded man touching an elephant. You feel the trunk but that tells you nothing about the feet.” Her scientific production, including dozens of successful studies and publications, is reflective of this team approach.

In April 2017, Liegler was on an annual trek to Tijuana to build houses with American high school students, including her son, Spencer. “I was just about to cross the border into Mexico,” she said, “and I was off—I wasn’t being responsive.” Spencer and his sister, Mhairi, who attends university in San Diego, helped Liegler get into urgent care. There, doctors found a big, hemorrhaging mass in her brain, subsequently diagnosed as glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Many would say with two diagnoses of cancer (she also had breast cancer in 2011), Liegler was unlucky. She didn’t see it that way. “I’m very lucky because I have support,” she said. I have amazing health care. I have an amazing spouse. My kids are happy and they’re doing what they want to do in life.”

Liegler was a strong advocate for women in science, and she admired geneticist Barbara McClintock as a hero. Colleagues remember her as a brilliant researcher, compassionate mentor, and devoted friend. Outside of work, she enjoyed spending time in the garden and cherished the company of friends and family, including Spencer, Mhairi, and her husband, Terry.

Dr. Liegler and her family have requested any donations be made to support early career scientists, both faculty and staff, as they develop their careers. Please note “in memory of Teri Liegler.”