Beyond the academic challenge, two things made Dr Tawanda Zininga decide to become a biochemistry lecturer at Stellenbosch University (SU). When he first visited the SU campus in 2019, a shuttle picked him up from the airport and he was struck by the scenic drive. “I thought, wow! The landscape is just mind-blowing. The second thing that convinced me was the friendliness of the people. The hospitality of my colleagues made a deep impression."
Originally from Zimbabwe, Zininga is now settled in Stellenbosch with his wife Chipo and their two children. Since he started working at SU's Faculty of Science in 2020, his career has gone from strength to strength. Apart from numerous travel awards, he was recently awarded the Rehana Malgas-Enus Award from SU's Early Career Academic Development Programme.
Last year he was selected to be part of the prestigious Future Professors Programme (FPP), a flagship initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training. The FPP is administered under the helm of Prof Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of Education at SU, and aims to enhance the academic excellence and leadership qualities of a carefully selected group of lecturing staff at the country's 26 universities.
All FPP fellows show promise of becoming leaders in their field and taking their place as part of a transformed next generation of South African professors across all disciplines.
The youngest of ten children, Zininga's interest in science is rooted in a childhood experience that still informs his work. “I started developing an interest in science after suffering from malaria twice during my childhood. This made me interested in contributing to minimizing the human suffering from malaria."
Zininga is the first in his family to get a degree and he jokes that at family gatherings his siblings keep him very busy asking for medical advice. He initially studied Medical Laboratory Sciences at the College of Health Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe in 2005 and completed a MSc in Molecular Biology at Staffordshire University, in the United Kingdom in 2012. “I worked for about six years as a medical scientist in Zimbabwe and later Botswana, where my work was focused on diagnosing patients using clinical samples for molecular, biochemical, immunological, histological and haematological diagnostics. These stints helped me to appreciate the importance of proteins in general and more specifically in human systems," Zininga explains.
He completed his PhD in Biochemistry in 2016 at the University of Venda and received an Africa-Germany Network of Excellence in Science (AGNES) junior researcher award in the same year. He has established collaborations with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town and internationally with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine and the Ludwig Maximilians-University Munich, both in Germany. Zininga holds a Y1 rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF).
“During my undergraduate years, I was always intrigued by how biochemistry holds the key to understanding human-pathogen interactions. I was first introduced to protein biochemistry by my PhD supervisor, Prof Addmore Shonhai at the University of Zululand as a PhD student. As fate would have it, I moved to the University of Venda at the same time my supervisor transferred to head the biochemistry department. As someone who was interested in malaria from my early years, I jumped at the opportunity. I could now see myself contributing to the fight against malaria."
For the past few years, Zininga's research has been focused on the role of heat shock proteins in malaria transmission. At the heart of his research is the intriguing fact that the malaria parasite can survive in two physiologically distinct hosts – the cold-blooded mosquito and warm-blooded humans. This is due to a set of molecular chaperones called heat shock proteins in the malaria parasite, Zininga explains.
“If we can understand how the parasite manages to use its heat shock proteins to survive stress, we can use this knowledge to design drugs targeting this system to weaken the parasite and potentially eliminate it. My research is focused on understanding how the protein folding system of the malaria parasite is so efficient to enable the parasite to be resilient to heat, environmental, and drug-induced stress. To this end, we are now focusing on the endoplasmic reticulum, one of the cell organelles of the parasite that has been shown to be responsible for facilitating parasite resilience to drug-induced stress. The correct functioning of the heat shock proteins in this organelle has been implicated in the development of artemisinin resistance." The ultimate aim of Zininga's research is to help reverse drug resistance in malaria parasites.
One of the advantages of the FPP programme is that it has given him access to other academics working in fields that complement his research. “Being included in the Future Professors Programme is motivating me to reach greater heights considering the exposure that I get from some of the best academics in South Africa. I'm sure this will create several lifelong networks. I've already started benefiting by getting mentorship from earlier cohorts.
“Some of the scientists who are also part of the programme have given me fresh perspectives on my research. It's very valuable to get insights into the societal dynamics that impact the management of a disease such as malaria."
Being part of FPP has also provided Zininga with support to apply for research funding and opportunities to travel abroad for his research. He is going on a sabbatical in 2024 and hopes to use the time to deepen his research to ultimately contribute to finding a cure for one of Africa's deadliest diseases. Beyond malaria research, he is also interested in non-communicable diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. He is collaborating with various medical experts such as UCT's Prof Karen Sliwa, director of the Cape Heart Institute, and Dr Graham Chakafana of Hampton University on peripartum cardiomyopathy. Zininga is also working with SU's Dr Balindiwe Sishi on identifying heat shock protein biomarkers for cardiotoxicity during breast cancer.
Apart from academic work, Zininga hopes to make time for his two other passions during his sabbatical – hiking and fishing.