From Zimbabwe to Cambridge: my global scientific journey

From Zimbabwe to Cambridge: my global scientific journey

From Zimbabwe to Cambridge: my global scientific journey

My name is Ntombizodwa, and I’m from Zimbabwe, but my passions have taken me on a journey around the world. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Medicinal Chemistry (Biochemistry) from Arizona State University in 2019. After graduation, l worked part-time as a middle school teacher at Mesa Arts Academy and as an external collaborator in the Anderson Lab at Biodesign Institute. I am now researching lung immune responses in the Dooley-Liston Lab under a Gates Cambridge scholarship at the Babraham Institute.

My PhD project

Tombi in the lab

My project focuses on understanding immune responses during lung infection. The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have proved how harmful lung infections can be, accounting for millions of deaths worldwide. For instance, the immune responses to lung infections can be detrimental in some patients, damaging the lung tissue. Hence, there is a need for a mechanism to maintain homeostasis and provide tolerance. Regulatory T cells are subpopulation of CD4+ cells, a type of immune cell, with regulating or suppressing and tissue repairing capability. Regulatory T cells are promising as they are part of that mechanism.

Throughout my PhD project, I am investigating lung immunity and ways to minimise intense immune responses. Over the next two years, I will be employing various techniques and other experimental approaches to find solutions to this enigma.

Tips for securing a scholarship

For my undergraduate, I was under the Mastercard Foundation at Arizona State University, which allowed me to study medicinal chemistry (biochemistry) without worrying about tuition fees, accommodation, health insurance, and living expenses. Currently, l am under the Gates Cambridge Foundation studying for a PhD in Biological Science.

My top tips for students are

 1. Seize the opportunity; it is always better to get rejected than not try at all. Don’t be afraid of those rejections; take them as a learning tool to advance you and try again.

2. Do your best. Prepare well in advance. Seek help from experts. Life is never meant to walk alone, so go smile, strike a conversation, or ask for help.

3. Do not give up.

Studying in the UK and USA

I spent my college years in Arizona, well known for its dry heat, desert, and mountainous vibes. Adjusting to the high temperatures was a struggle. However, l had a great time which was made possible by friends l met there, kind professors who treated me like part of their own family, and supervisors who gave me honest feedback helping me grow intellectually.

At Arizona State University, l facilitated and created workshops targeting international students in the hope to reduce the cultural shock that international students often experience when new to the university. In between, l also juggled my research on the early detection of cervical cancer, dancing, and singing (l had a band called African Rhythm that frequently performed African music at conferences, events, etc).

After graduating from Arizona State University, I took a few months to work as a science teacher in a middle school at Mesa Arts Academy. The experience honed my aspirations to pursue a PhD since l could see my future as a research physician-scientist running a lab and teaching students. I then applied for the Gates Cambridge Foundation to study in the Dooley-Liston Lab.

I was excited to study in the UK, see the historic buildings I had read about in books such as Harry Potter and also eager to wear a gown to eat dinner - something only experienced in British colleges.

However, l moved during the pandemic, meaning l spent most of the days isolated due to COVID-19 regulations and rules. The fantastic staff at the Babraham Institute made that transition much easier by always sharing a smile, virtual support or greeting me whenever l was on the campus. Some went the extra mile by taking me out for dog walks, coffees, and lunch. It goes a long way for an international student to know surrounding people care, support, and welcome you. I started my project in the Dooley-Liston Lab on respiratory immunology. I was excited because it was relevant to today’s reality and suited my values- of finding ways to better people’s health.

Social entrepreneurship journey

I have always been interested in helping others.  It's one of the customs or habits instilled in me by my parents. Despite facing hardships in financing his family, my father would always spare a few dollars to help others in the community. His favourite response would always be ubuntu, meaning “I am because we are.” He strongly believes in lifting each other to achieve a common goal.

Because of the influences of my parents, I am always looking for ways to help others. When l was in the USA, I was involved in education and women empowerment projects. I co-founded a Female Dreamers Initiative which focused on empowering women through teaching them poultry rearing skills. During that time, l also helped my friend set up a pre-school in Zimbabwe (Little Dreamers), which provides quality education to 5-7 year old girls in Zimbabwe. Female education is not prioritised in some rural areas of Zimbabwe; hence finding ways to help girls get into school early was my main goal. The school is still functioning, and it's one of my most fulfilling experiences to date.

Lately, l have been working with the Shasha Network, which focuses on bridging the career gap in Africa through mentorship and career research. Here, l started as a mentor and later co-founded a 100 Young Women Initiative to engage more girls in the program. There are few female role models and fewer opportunities for women worldwide, let alone in Africa. Through the support of Judge Business School and Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge, l have received lots of help in setting up the program and just general mentorship to ensure that the project is successful.

Tombi Makuyana teaching

My biggest challenges and achievement

My biggest achievement is being awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to study in Cambridge. It is one of the world's most prestigious awards with a global network of great leaders committed to changing the world for the better. Being part of such like-minded people helps me refine my ideas. I always believe “the better company, the better you become.”

Doing my research work in the Dooley-Liston lab is equally a blessing. It is rare to find great supervisors like them or even a warm lab environment. Though we come from different backgrounds, there is always one common thing: science bonding us together.

I haven’t faced any enormous challenges yet, but l believe with such great support from my lab, l am totally in safe hands.

The future

Recently, l have acquired a new interest in the business aspect of healthcare, which includes start-ups and the pharmaceutical industry. This is because, with COVID-19, l have witnessed the tremendous power of this industry in slowing the spread of the virus, for instance with COVID-19 testing kits, vaccines etc. At the same time, l am interested in translational research mainly because my interests are rooted in my desire to improve the health of others. Therefore, l will be more likely to be involved in bridging these two interests to improve health care globally.