Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.
Ntombizodwa Makuyana will be graduating in May from Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences with a degree in medicinal biochemistry, but this is just the first degree she plans to receive as she has her sights set on pursuing her MD-PhD next. Makuyana wants to understand how the immune response fights against diseases and drug development to find new drug therapies, so she can contribute to making health care systems in Zimbabwe better when she returns.
ASU is a long way from where Makuyana comes from in Zimbabwe, where women are not encouraged to get an education, but that isn’t stopping her from breaking the cycle. She is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and through this support she has been able to realize her dreams and goals to get an education while discovering her passion for science.
She has worked with Karen Anderson, professor at the Biodesign Institute's Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics and the School of Life Sciences lab doing research to understand how the immune response can be used to detect and alter cancer development.
“Ntombi’s project focused on making HPV viral proteins for a novel assay for cervical cancer detection. Protein production is sometimes an art form; it can be very difficult to make proteins in high yields that work,” said Anderson. “But, as a good scientist, she was persistent, and managed to get it to work.”
Makuyana has made the most of her time here at ASU and taken advantage of all it has to offer.
She managed to co-found a project in Zimbabwe — Female Dreamers — with her friend, Shantel Marekera, that aims to empower girls and women to be economically independent by providing them quality education and teaching them poultry-rearing skills. The initiative won several awards including the Changemaker Award at ASU in 2018, Venture Devils 2018, the Millennium Fellowship with United Nations award 2018, the Pitchfork Award 2019 for Global Change and Global Impact Project and was presented at the Clinton Global Initiative 2018.
After graduation Makuyana is looking to the next chapter and continuing on to MD-PhD school. She answered some questions about her time here at ASU.
Q: How did your scholarship impact your education at ASU?
A: I am part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars program; this has supported me financially and taught me the importance of giving back to the community. Because of MasterCard Foundation Scholars, I developed into a global leader with a vision to better the world.
Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
A: My “aha” moment was when l started research in Biodesign Institute in Dr. Anderson’s lab. Ever since childhood, I have always been interested in research, but at that time I did not know what research entails. I finally understood the connection between my major, medicinal chemistry, and research, especially when I was doing experiments in the lab: I could understand the concepts I was learning in class and apply them. I discovered my passion for science.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: I learned to talk or share ideas whether or not they make sense. I used this concept and it has worked wonders in my life. I remember sharing my ideas with my friends (Shantel Marekera, Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammed Habbash, etc.) about ways we can bring an impact into the world. From being a “not making sense” idea, Female Dreamers became a reality with our friends' encouragement and support.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: ASU’s diversity and impeccable record of success in creating global leaders inspired me to be part of it. Being an international student can be difficult sometimes, especially coming to a place where people have different values, cultures and beliefs than yours. But, here at ASU, I never faced any of those difficulties. I felt welcomed and was made to be part of the family. Because of the diversity here at ASU, I interacted and engaged with people from diverse backgrounds on tackling the world's challenges. This also made me join ASU Global Guide program — a peer mentor program that helps international students develop strong interpersonal and intercultural communication skills by fostering new relationships with peers from different cultures so l could help other international students adjust to ASU. All these experiences helped to finally understand why ASU prides itself for its diversity and inclusion and “measures its success by whom it includes." I felt included and appreciated, and that’s a huge reason why l love ASU.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: Dr. Karen S. Anderson and Dr. Mary Dawes were instrumental in my personal development. Growing up in a male-dominated community in Zimbabwe, it was a norm that women were supposed to be trained to be better wives; it, unfortunately, would not exceed that point. The idea never resonated within me; and when I met these two amazing women doing amazing projects, l was inspired to dream bigger and exceed expectations. Their unparalleled one-on-one mentoring helped me to shatter the glass ceilings and aim for the horizon. These women’s unwavering support challenged me to extend the same act of kindness to girls in my community to break free from the labels that confine them to nowhere beyond the kitchen door and instead define their own lives.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Advice: “Be yourself.” I used to compare myself with others, but l have learned that everyone is different. We have different personalities, dreams and ambitions. Strive to be a better version of yourself and utilize every moment you have — talk to professors, make connections and expand your network.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My favorite place is by the Memorial Union — the fireplace. I just love to sit and reflect or de-stress on life. As l watch other students walking by, it reminds me that I am not alone in this life.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I am most likely to go to school for my MD-PhD. This is because there are few physician scientists in developing countries like Zimbabwe. The MD-PhD program will help me connect research discoveries into clinical settings which will be instrumental for my vision of finding new drug therapies. My overall goal is to gain an understanding on how immune systems fight against diseases and drug development.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Since my personal interests are rooted in my desire to improve others’ health, l will be more likely to channel the money to improving the health care system in developing countries. This is because l have seen many people forego treatments because they cannot afford them and also the fact that medical care is offered based on the person’s income level. My hope is for everyone to have access to health care despite their financial background because “medical care is a right.”
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