Swimming Against the Tide


I've always had a passion for science. My mother, by far my greatest inspiration, always answered all my questions in those decisive formative years and encouraged me to ask more questions. She still does! I can't seem to outwit her, even now.

As community health advisor, my mother kept a huge, well-illustrated text of medical embryology in our rural home in Chiwundura, near the city of Gweru in Zimbabwe. She would explain stuff from the book to us sometimes, and it was really exciting. My father, an accounts clerk during his time (may his soul rest in peace), was also interested in biology. So I grew up with a comfortable dose of biology, at least enough to arouse my intellect.

In love with Darwin's theory

Mum also had another nature book--I never knew the title because it had no cover--with information about wild animals and birds, their habitats and habits. I loved it, and I read it every day when I was a kid at a rural primary school, just a few years after independence from British colonial rule. We were still redefining ourselves as a people, and many things were experimental. I then spent 4 years at a boarding school where I fell in love with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

I went to high school in the ghetto in Chitungwiza, a residential suburb near Harare, studying biology, chemistry, and mathematics. There wasn't much in the way of practical equipment for our advanced biology class there. The only laboratory practical we did, I remember, was the one on osmosis using potatoes our teacher bought with his own money and sugar brought from his home. I was swimming against the tide, but the challenge was fun and I remained determined. I've always had the blessing of determined friends, and together we struggled through. I developed interest in genetic engineering and biotechnology. I figured that if I got to university, at least I'd be able to do the experiments I wasn't able to do in high school.

I studied for a degree in crop science at the University of Zimbabwe, and during this time I met Ian Robertson, a lecturer in the department with a passion for biotechnology. I worked with him for my final-year project, and subsequently for my master's research. We had a humble lab at the university, without much high-tech equipment, certainly not as good as I had dreamed of during those tough high school days. But it was reasonably equipped and it kept us busy.

Ian was the kind of mentor who will help you grow as a person, rather than focusing only on your productivity at the bench. While working with Ian I had opportunities for teaching and giving talks; these opportunities helped shape my career. During this time I developed an interest in the debates on the scientific and social implications of genetically modified organisms. I started writing and contributing articles to AgBioView, a biotech discussion forum run by C. S. Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama.

If I will be able to help and encourage someone the way Dr. Prakash encouraged me, I will have fulfilled one essential goal of my life. Dr. Prakash invited me to a workshop on biosafety and biotechnology in Nairobi, Kenya, in April 2003, where we met for the first time in person. He helped me apply for the BioVision/Next Wave fellowship to Lyon, France, for the world life sciences forum in April 2003.

"Next Wave would turn out to be a wonderful companion"

That meeting was perhaps the most significant push in my scientific journey. The networking drilling we went through before and during the event helped me to create and maintain many contacts that have made a difference in my career. That was also when my marriage with Next Wave began; Next Wave would turn out to be a wonderful companion up on the hills and down in the valleys.

I began to look abroad. Initially I wanted to go to South Africa, to the University of Cape Town. They have a good molecular biology program there, and it would be close to home. But two of my best friends were studying outside the country at that time, which encouraged me to consider other possibilities. I contacted Erich Grotewold, a professor in the plant biology department at Ohio State University, after reading some of his work on metabolic engineering. Erich encouraged me to apply to the graduate program in the department, but I had not taken the GRE, and with the foreign currency problems in my country at that time the $40 application fee was more than the street value of my monthly student stipend. It was a weird economy we had in Zimbabwe, with three-figure inflation and shortages of basically everything. This made research difficult; it could not be a national priority under the circumstances.

A couple of months later Erich wrote offering me support to work in his lab as a visiting scholar while working on my graduate school application. I accepted the offer. I've enjoyed working in Erich's lab and have learned a lot, not only about science, but about myself, too. That's one of the advantages of being in a radically different setting: you get a different reflection of yourself.

The first months were rough. The homesickness was overwhelming. It was hard being, for the first time, a member of a minority group. But the support of lab mates and friends has helped things along. Of course the United States is far from the big party I expected. I went through a most ridiculous load of paperwork. I have just been accepted into the graduate program here in plant cellular and molecular biology. There are challenges still, I still feel like a minority, and I remain concerned about the small numbers of minorities in science in the U.S. As before, it still feels like I am swimming against the tide, but also, as before, meeting the challenges is fun. Thanks to Dr. Sonya Summerour Clemmons's wonderful articles, the road doesn't seem that lonely after all.

Looking back, it seems as if the only thing you need to get what you want is the help and support of other people; it's a networking game, pretty much. The meeting in Lyon opened up new horizons.

We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.

--Martin Luther King Jr.

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