Michelle Mukonyora a.k.a Ella, has put on quite a few caps in her life so far. Both scientist and music lover, she has had experience in different spheres of life. Her story is particularly fascinating for me, because it was the first time I’d heard of an aspiring bioinformatician.
Michelle the DJ
Her journey into her first role began in 2008, after finishing her honours degree. She decided to take a break for a few years, and during this period she got into the DJ booth for the first time. “I’ve always had a passion for music, but I was never musical. The one day I got one of my DJ friends to teach me how to do it for fun and I got hooked.” Michelle was fortunate enough to get a residency soon after she started. Although this career path was wholly unintended, DJ Elle M was spinning the turntables for a few years.
Michelle the Student
Michelle got involved with biotechnology from high school. “At the time it was being described as the ‘new frontier’ of the life sciences,” she says, and she was more than ready to launch herself into this scientific unknown. The initial plan had been to continue her higher education in Australia, where she could do a joint degree in business and biotechnology. Unfortunately for Michelle, life had other plans: that was the year that the Zimbabwean dollar crashed. Australia was off the table. South Africa was the next best option, and that’s where she got her undergraduate degree from the University of the Western Cape in Applied Biotechnology. She graduated and after she left DJ Elle M behind, Michelle went back to her first love.
“Science is my life. I always knew I’d be back it was just a question of when.”
Currently a student researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, Michelle’s main focus is drug and vaccine design in Africa, working on animal vaccines and predicting virus structures. It’s in this team that Michelle can flex her brain muscles and push the boundaries of biotechnology. “I have been given the opportunity to drive my own research process with a wealth of resources at hand. Being exposed to the best equipment and computing power makes one better able to compete globally.”
“My biggest challenge has been not having an emotional support system as a postgraduate student.”
Michelle has had to deal with a tough and often isolated environment: science is truly her life now. “Science is all consuming with very little reward when you are a student. Your work doesn’t stop when you leave the lab and I wasn’t prepared for that.” It’s a break from the structures she was used to from her undergraduate studies. To add to this list of problems, the field of science can be difficult for a young black African woman. Michelle has been lucky enough not to have experienced any discrimination, but it’s a fact that she’s keenly aware of. “When I look up to higher positions that I aspire to I don’t find many women, more specifically black women. I know the ‘Black woman in science’ hurdle is coming up soon for me.”
Michelle the Biotechnologist
“Compared to the rest of Africa we have the potential to be leaders in the field.”
Despite the challenges in the past and the ones to face in the future, Michelle remains optimistic about her relationship with science. Although studying in South Africa, she has every intention of coming back to Zimbabwe and tapping into the world of potential. ” In terms of biotechnologists there are plenty of Zimbabweans across the world doing cutting edge research. The key would be to convince them to come back home to the right infrastructure in place.” Invested in her work as a biotechnologist, Michelle created a website this year, Nyenyedzi Bio, whose aim is to provide a platform for all things science related in Africa.
What struck me the most about Michelle is her dedication to her craft. Although she has done other things with her life, she keeps coming back to her calling. Zimbabwe is lucky to have people like Michelle: people always questioning the limits of our reality and pioneering the push into our country’s uncharted territory.
“The most exciting part about biology for me has always been how structure relates to function. I love the idea of predicting the structures of small molecules that we can’t see with the naked eye like proteins and DNA and predicting how they work.”
Keep pushing Michelle.
You can follow Michelle on Twitter at @EllaBellaBleu
To find out more about Michelle’s interests and work, visit http://nyenyedzibio.com/index.html.