NATHASIA MUDIWA MUWANIGWA

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Nathasia is a 26-year-old PhD student in neurobiology at the Luxembourg Centre
for Systems Biomedicine investigating mechanisms of neuroplasticity in a human mini-brain model of Parkinson’s Disease. She’s also the co-founder and director of Visibility STEM Africa that advocates for increased visibility for #AfricansInSTEM.

by
Rodney Rumbidzai Chawota
rodney@houseofmutapa.com

Tell us about your family, childhood and upbringing in Zimbabwe.

Although I was born in Harare, my family – parents and older brother – moved to Gaborone in Botswana when I was four years old. I went to a school, Thorn-hill Primary School, that exposed me to so many things that I ended up wanting to do everything. My parents were often exasperated coordinating all my activities. I still want to do everything, but with age
you learn to prioritize.

We moved back to Zimbabwe in mid-2006 which was quite a big change for us. By then, the economy was struggling which was a contrast to the stability we had back in Botswana, at least from my perspective as a 12-year-old. However, being able to adapt is one of our superpowers as Zimbabweans, so we did just that. I went to Mabelreign Girls High then South Eastern College in Chiredzi and always did well academically with the best grades in my class during both O and A Levels. Being a boarder was really helpful in preparing me for independence once I left Zimbabwe for university.

What or who fired your passion for biological science?

I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember. Part of it comes from my unrelenting desire to under- stand how and why everything works the way that it does. I’ve always had quite a critical mind and analyze literally everything down to the most minute detail.

I particularly find human biology fascinating be- cause of the way molecules come together to form these super complex structures within cells; how these cells come together to form tissues and how these tissues form organs that in totality make up our bodies. And somehow (most of the time) it just works! Everyone should be interested in how and
why their bodies work; not only because it’s just so clever, but also because it allows you to make in- formed decisions about your health and body.

You studied in Cyprus. What was that like?

Yes, I studied Human Biology at the University of Nicosia in the Greek/south side of the island. It was a great foundation for getting into medical research later on and I graduated top of my class in 2016.

Living in Cyprus was pretty chilled to be quite honest. There was a community of Zimbabweans there so one never really felt lonely and I didn’t experience homesickness. Cyprus really embodies the relaxed Mediterranean energy in comparison to the Netherlands where I did my masters degree. Looking back, I lived a pretty good life there. At one point I had my own apartment with a balcony where I used to host parties with some of the other Zimbabweans. When I think of the rent I was paying then and the space I had, compared to now in Luxembourg, it’s quite a contrast because Luxembourg is much more expensive.

I had a healthy balance between my academic and social life. I certainly miss the beaches and the fun summer months. That place got hot in summer: 40+ degrees with high humidity is not a joke!

What about life in Luxembourg?

I love it. It’s hard to say why I do, but I think my first experience here has something to do with it. I’d come for my PhD interview from the Netherlands by bus. The moment I got to the Gare which is the central bus stop, and stepped off the bus, I was taken aback by how many different shades of people there were.

Luxembourg is small but very multicultural. In fact about 50% of the population of 500,000 is made up of foreigners. As a person of color, being in a space with so much diversity instantly made me feel really comfortable, plus it’s also relaxed.

The university is only 16 years old and the institute I work in is ten years old but the government has invested a lot in research and sourcing talent. It’s awesome to be part of a relatively new institution and to be able to contribute to its growth. I really feel valued as an employee and have had so many incredible opportunities too. The biggest drawback? The rent! It’s so expensive, jeez.

There aren’t many young black women in your field. What’s your take on this and does it add pressure to the few like you?

I would certainly love to see more young black women in research, science and academia in general. Being in the minority in any space can be quite isolating and play into imposter syndrome, and this was my experience at certain points of my journey. Representation is important because it reinforces that you actually belong. Having to think about your race can be exhausting and sometimes you just don’t want to have to explain your existence and presence.

I remember feeling under pressure during my master’s, but to be quite frank, most of that was down to me.

In the end, I had to accept that all you can truly do is your best. I realized that this journey is mine, I chose it and I’ll do the best that I can, but the best will look different every day. Anything else that’s projected onto me by others is not my burden to carry. Everyone’s journey is different and I just need to live the life that feels most authentic to me.

You cofounded Visibility STEM Africa with Nataša Lazarević to connect Africans in STEM. What else can be done to accelerate the development and promotion of this field on the continent?

There’s an incredible amount of work that still needs to be done on multiple levels. Representation is key, and that’s one of the areas of focus of the initiative. We profile Africans in STEM fields to provide visible role models for young people interested in pursuing a career in the field, as well as showcase the wide variety of different paths one can take – there are so many not just in academia and industry.

It isn’t enough to encourage individuals to get into STEM though if we don’t foster an environment that allows them to succeed and one that promotes retention. While educational activities and outreach programs are of immense value, the reality is our governments need to see the value and importance of actively channeling resources into STEM fields. Investment is essential.

This year Zimbabwe turned 40. What do you say about where the country is right now?

That’s a bit of a loaded question, but I guess to put it lightly, Zimbabwe has a lot it has to change in order to improve the quality of life of its people. It’s no secret that life is challenging for the average Zimbabwean – and that may even be an understatement. I see this with my own family and it’s disheartening to see people with degrees and decades of work experience struggling to make ends meet. Beyond people with degrees, everyone has the right to live a decent life where their basic needs are met. Zimbabwe at 40 needs to be accountable for how it has treated it’s people and take action to serve us better.

Do you think young women like you in Zimbabwe have the same opportunities to attain the same things that you have?

In theory yes. If you are passionate, tenacious, driven, then your goals are within your grasp. In reality though, so many factors come into play. I have to acknowledge that I was afforded certain opportunities that gave me access to resources that helped me on my journey.

Not everyone can afford to study abroad – although I was on a partial scholarship for my bachelor’s and a full scholarship for my master’s. Not everyone has internet access  and the internet plays a huge part in accessing opportunities. My family has always been incredibly supportive and allowed me to make my own choices  within reason of course! I’m very grateful that my parents trusted my judgement and allowed me to pursue a career far from conventional. Not every woman has a supportive family. In fact, there sometimes can be a negative connotation that surrounds women who go beyond
undergrad level.

However, if there is one group of people in this world I’ll always bet on, it’s Zimbabwean women. Regardless of some of the barriers and challenges that may come our way, we will rise and excel. It’s been incredible to get to know other Zimbabwean women doing so well and changing the game in their respective spaces.

What motivates you?

Pursuing what I love and am passionate about. I never really aimed to be top of my class or specifically to get a PhD. I just really loved biology, so much so that it rarely felt like work. When it got hard it felt more like a challenge, and being competitive by nature, I
like challenges.

I’m also driven by my desire to uplift other people. I don’t believe in winning alone; I genuinely do not see the point in that. I want to move forward with my people, my community. That’s partially why Nataša and I started Visibility STEM Africa – to build a community around Africans in STEM and move onward and upwards as a unified force.

Who are your role models?

My parents – a cliché, but they really are. They’ve both gone through a lot as individuals and partners, but they always adapt, move forward and find joy in whatever situation they’re in. This has helped me tremendously in navigating my own journey.

I’m also inspired by people who are not afraid to break outside of the status quo and challenge some of the archaic systems we continue to follow that stifle our growth as a people.

How has COVID-19 affected you and what do you think the future holds as far as the pandemic is concerned?

Right now, I’ve been in self isolation for nine weeks. As I live alone the whole situation was quite over-whelming initially, especially being away from family. However, in a strange way, the time alone with my thoughts turned out to be positive. It allowed me time to reflect and to start prioritizing self-care. As someone who is quite a workaholic, it’s easy to
consume myself in work, at the expense of my mental health. The situation with COVID-19 made me put into perspective what is actually important.

COVID-19 will have many implications across society in different ways. It’s really hard to say what the future holds because this situation is pretty unprecedented, at least not since the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. My hope is that people will continue to respect the measures necessary to stop the spread of the virus. I hope we learn to accommodate the fact that life as we know it can change at any moment, so it’s important to stay grateful, kind and compassionate.

Follow Nathasia here:
IG: @mudiwa1409
LinkedIn: Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa
Facebook: Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa
Website: http://www.visibilitystemafrica.com/

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