Scientist Stories: Meet Tombi Makuyana
Earlier this year, the Institute launched a new video series called Scientist Stories where we highlight the scientists behind our world-leading research. In this series, we discover more about what they do and how they got to where they are now. In this latest edition, we chat to Tombi Makuyana, a PhD student in the Liston lab, about what inspires her about her research area, her career path and the incredible things she is doing outside of the lab. Watch the video on our YouTube channel or read the profile below.
Can you tell us about your role and your research at the Babraham Institute?
I am a PhD student at the Institute. I do not take lectures and courses, but instead my focus is on research. This is perfect for me because I have the flexibility of reading ahead of time and researching areas that I feel are of interest to me.
My research is on respiratory immunology, looking at respiratory infections, which is actually perfect during these COVID times. I look at the lungs, how viruses affect the lungs and how our bodies fight these viruses to uncover a way for us to find therapeutics for these viral pandemics.
What is you day to day life like as a PhD student?
The day to day involves mainly research. I wake up and read a paper, or I try to read at least one paper every day, and get into the habit of that. Afterwards, I will be answering and replying to emails before doing some experiments. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been a bit slower compared to when we do not have COVID. So, my day to day is analysing data, doing experiments and reading papers.
Even though we have limited time in the labs at the moment, what sort of experiments are you doing?
In my group, we mainly use flow cytometry, which is this device that you use to see the cells, or to count the number of cells. I mainly do flow cytometry and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), and also maintaining the tissues and growing cells in a Petri dish.
What is it that you find particularly inspiring within your research area?
Because I grew up in Zimbabwe in Africa and I have seen many people dying due to diseases that I feel like if research was done on them, we could find a solution. So, for me, immunology is closer to finding ways to help people because we study how the body responds to these pathogens, like viruses or bacteria. It is a perfect way of helping and contributing to efforts of improving others’ health. That is how I feel about immunology.
What route did you take to end up at the Babraham Institute?
I did my primary and secondary education in Zimbabwe. I studied maths, chemistry, biology and physics. So, I did all the sciences for my A-Levels because I knew I wanted to be in the science field. The places are not bad but there is a lack of research, as we just do not have the infrastructure. I really wanted to get into research or at least do something with medical sciences. Later, I moved to the US where I studied medicinal biochemistry in the hope of understanding the cellular processes that happen when a person takes drugs. I really wanted to understand that aspect and in the hope of trying to contribute something to help my country and cover this gap that we are lacking, especially research. So, at Arizona State University where I studied medicinal biochemistry, I was involved with a couple of projects. In the first one, I was working on cervical cancer and in this project; I was looking at biomarkers for the early detection of cervical cancer. I also worked on Alzheimer’s disease in another project. All these research experiences solidified my interest of going into a research career. That is why I applied for a PhD and hence why I came to the UK for my PhD programme.
You are a Gates Scholar. Can you tell us a little more about what that means?
The Gates Foundation look for an individual who is willing to change the world. Someone who has a good track record academically. They provide funding for students who want to continue their graduate studies. After I graduated, I helped in the community and worked as a science teacher in Arizona where I was helping students to understand science in ways they can comprehend. That was one way of giving back to the community. When I applied for the Gates scholarship, I put that in my application, which was really one of the things that they are looking for in someone willing to change the world.
What do you enjoy doing outside of science?
Outside of science, I am a social entrepreneur. At the moment I’m working on providing quality education to girls in Zimbabwe. We assist with preschool girls, aged four to seven years old, from disadvantaged background. We provide them quality education and at the same time, connect them to opportunities where they can continue their education. Another piece that we are also trying to tackle is helping girls who are in high school because when you are in high school that is the period when you are also thinking of your future. You don’t know what to do and you need inspiration. One of the things I’ve been working really hard on is to mentor these girls, find girls who are also doing well in life and pair them with these high school students so they are motivated to continue working on their dreams. Of course, I am also a singer and a dancer so I spend quite a lot of time working on this.
What advice do you have for students considering careers in science?
I would say go for it. You only have one life. Don’t be afraid to dream and just go for your dreams. Just do it. If I can do it, you can do it.
Image description: Tombi Makuyana