For this profile, we spoke to Alice Matimba, Global Training Manager at Wellcome Connecting Science. The Global Training programme is building capacity in biomedicine for research and healthcare communities in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Hands on, practical courses are run for biomedical research scientists and healthcare professionals, covering everything from drug discovery to epidemiological surveillance of pathogens.
Alice speaks about her career, the challenges faced by African scientists, the importance of diversity in genomics and her hopes for building capacity for science around the world.
Tell us about your career
I'd say my science journey was almost a given. I'm originally from Zimbabwe, and when I was in high school I did pretty well in the sciences. I had a special connection with chemistry. I was the kind of person who would read every pamphlet and medicine packet and food label I was always curious about what was inside, and how the chemicals mixed together and produce something new. I just felt like I was a scientist, there was no negotiation!
After my undergraduate studies in biochemistry in Zimbabwe, I did my Masters in Belgium. I started a PhD, and moved back and forth between the two countries for a while, as it wasnt possible to undertake all the research in Zimbabwe. I finished my studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Then I moved to the United States, where I took up a postdoctoral research position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. After that, I returned to Zimbabwe to teach health sciences, and at the same time attempting to establish an independent career in research and education. This kickstarted my journey into full-time capacity building through advanced professional training and development , and Ive been here at the Wellcome Genome Campus for four years now.
Tell us about your journey into capacity building
My background is in molecular biology and genomics, and my interest was in pharmacogenomics, focussing on African populations. For my PhD, I started to build large scale genetic studies in Africa not something that many people were doing at the time. We were interested in understanding the role of genetic variants in disease susceptibility and response to medicines. I started a biobank for African populations and collected samples from five countries. It was really nice, because it was the beginning of how to be a networked researcher. I was collaborating with other scientists, and we were all trying to answer the same question. After that, I moved to the USA to study genetic mechanisms underlying variation in response to childhood cancer treatments.
I was determined to take what I'd learned and go back home to Zimbabwe and apply my skills. I was interested in the direct application of research and genomics in health, and I wanted to work with patients. But when I got there, I found there was hardly any set up for doing that kind of advanced genomics work. I realised that first of all you needed to establish cohorts of participants, build teams, write grant proposals, find collaborators; you needed to start from scratch. So I found myself spending a lot of time trying to establish and start implementing ideas, finding collaborators and building teams.
Whilst doing that, I realized my skills could be used in different ways too. So I worked with other teams to apply for grants that aimed to build healthcare capacity. One of the projects involved screening patients for diabetes complications using telemedicine approaches. This work is still ongoing and I remain proud of it, as it was outside my comfort zone and I learnt great lessons about multi-disciplinary team work. As a mid-career move, I took up an opportunity in Germany to learn about clinical trial research and management, with the goal of contributing to strengthening capacity in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
How does your background help you in your current role?
When I joined Wellcome Connecting Science as a course development officer, my role was to work with colleagues and people around the world to expand the programme and deliver more training genomics and bioinformatics in the global south. What's been really, really clear, and I see it all the time, is that because I come from one of those regions that faces challenges around capacity, I have very good understanding of what it's like and can relate my experiences of trying to establish a research career in a low-resourced environment. I can ask, what is it that I would have needed if I was in an African institution with limited support, funding or expertise?
During my career, Ive been abroad, I've gone back, I've been abroad, I've gone back. And that is just one of the challenges that I faced trying to advance in science.
I feel like my background really helps to bring out those key important aspects that other people might not be able to relate to because they've never experienced it.
Why is diversity so important in science?
I dont think there is a science where diversity is more relevant than genomics. You have to study diverse populations and samples to understand human variation and diseases.
As an example, during my postdoctoral research, we used to look at different populations in one. We were trying to find genetic variation that was associated with specific drug response phenotypes. If you did that analysis without samples that have a lot of diversity, in this case, samples from populations with African heritage, you were not able to identify signals to prioritise for further analysis. It was only when you added samples that had extensive genetic diversity that you were able to pick up something significant.
Diversity is important in the people that are applying the science too. Everybody comes from different backgrounds, and how people think, and how people apply themselves and how people interact is always going to be important. If everybody thinks the same way and does the same thing, it really is just going to slow down science, or make it less inspiring.
What motivates you?
So much of what we have here on Campus, the huge facilities and the technology, is second nature. Perhaps we take it for granted. But where I come from, we are years behind. And so what motivates me is wherever people are lagging behind, I ask what I can do. What can I do to make that difference? How can I fill in that gap? I want to understand what people need. Not just in the global south, but even here, how can I help someone's career?
How can we have more people that can do so much more - not just for the sake of doing science, but actually for improving health in their communities and their countries?
As its Black History Month, who is your black hero?
I think that there are a lot of black heroes. I feel like black people, particularly scientists in many African countries, are always having to play catch up, always having to work under very difficult conditions, with very minimal resources. Even PhD students have to do their research, buy kits and reagents from their own pockets, and you know how expensive it is to collect data and run sample analysis.
Challenges range from not having funding, to not having support, and even just to discrimination alone. My black heroes are people, who despite the difficulties, are still doing whatever it takes to advance science.
What role does your ethnicity play in your career?
I feel like my ethnicity is a representation. It shows those behind me, and the science community as a whole, that a black person can do good science too, and you can succeed. And so my ethnicity is a statement, and I am able to represent people that continue to be underrepresented in science. And that's a really, really important statement.