Moscow by way of Zimbabwe: one student’s epic journey to a world-class science education

Tinashe Prince Maviza. Photo: Skoltech.

Tinashe Prince Maviza. Photo: Skoltech.

When Tinashe Prince Maviza decided to accept his admission offer for Skoltech’s MSc program in Biotechnology, he took an enormous leap of faith.

Until the day he departed for Moscow, he had never left his home country, the southern African nation of Zimbabwe.

As he boarded the plane that day, he knew that not only would he be trading warm weather and year-round sunshine for Russia’s iconically harsh winters, he would be trading familiarity and comfort for the unknown.

But having graduated at the top of his class with a degree in Biochemistry from the University of Zimbabwe – his country’s top college – Maviza was ready for a new challenge.

And if he has any regrets, you would be hard pressed to detect them through the enthusiasm he exudes each day while navigating his new life in the Russian capital.

We caught up with Maviza to learn more about what inspired him to pursue an education at Skoltech, and how he’s managing the international transition.

What made you decide to consider pursuing your graduate studies overseas?

As soon as I graduated from university, I started looking for scholarship opportunities abroad. I was specifically looking for programs abroad because I wanted to expand my horizons. Not only that – one of my affirmations was that I really wanted to go to the top – to one of the best institutes in the world. I really didn’t know where, but that was my constant prayer – I wanted to be among the best.  

I was doing some volunteer work at a Molecular Biology Teaching Laboratory in Zimbabwe. It was a Sunday and I was coming from church, and as soon as I got to the lab to do some biochemical assays and opened my computer, an ad popped up for Skoltech, which noted that it was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I was intrigued.

Generally, at that point I was applying to a lot of places, and just trying to figure out where I would fit in. But to be very frank with you, out of all the universities I had been applying to, including ones in the United States, Australia and England – Skoltech caught my attention; my universe conspired at that moment.

And what ultimately made you realize that Skoltech would be a good fit for you?

To a large extent, it was clear from the start that the institute resonated with what I believe in. One thing that I believe in is translating your scientific research into helping communities – into helping humanity to a larger extent.

As an undergraduate, of course I wanted to publish my research, but I also wanted to let the world know – to let society know – the impact of biotechnology, because in Zimbabwe, biotechnology is still in its infancy. So that was part and parcel of it.

Maviza with the team he worked with while completing his dissertation work during his final year of university in Zimbabwe. Photo: Skoltech.

Maviza with the team he worked with while completing his dissertation work during his final year of university in Zimbabwe. Photo: Skoltech.

I am very much interested in pursuing a career in research on the fundamental hallmarks of cancer studies and applications of genome editing to therapy. The state of the art technologies, research techniques and the translational approach employed at Skoltech were of interest to me. I believe that there are still many new and exciting discoveries waiting to be found, hidden within nature, and of beneficial use to humans and the environment. I want to be a part of the next discovery, and Skoltech offered me the opportunity to make that dream a reality.

During my final year of undergrad, I completed my dissertation working on a project that focused on the “Molecular characterization of ectomycorrhizal fungi and identification of a plant growth promoting bacterium.”

The project exposed me to basic techniques in recombinant technology, cloning, standard-PCR, Random Amplification of Polymorphic DNA (RAPD)-PCR, bioinformatics and bioassays in cell and molecular biology. I discovered a plant growth promoting bacterium with a phosphate solubilizing capability that is a potential candidate that can be applied as a biofertilizer.

I was working on developing a tool kit that will enable high school students to gain exposure to real scientific work, exposing them to some of the current technologies used in molecular biology.

When I saw the ad for Skoltech and began to look into the institute, I had no doubt that it resonated entirely with everything I believed in ranging from the quality research and innovation I noted from young scientists to helping communities, with the great example of the Siruis program being run by visionary students indeed conspiring with my beliefs as I searched online.

We are now at the threshold of a techno-scientific revolution; all fields are converging, and if you lay back, you might actually miss the moment of opportunity. So that is part and parcel of why I developed and helped spread the word, meeting people and striving to disseminate the knowledge I had gained in my studies. There are many universities out there, but this one really resonated with my goals and what I hope to achieve. Converting scientific research into viable products to help humanity is one thing that I’ve always longed for, and lo and behold, Russia was beckoning.

How did you prepare for your arrival at Skoltech?

It’s very easy to be skeptical of such a big endeavor – going to a foreign country, moving away from home, leaving friends and family behind. The goal of my scientific career is to carry out research that will benefit everyone, regardless of their nationality or race. Since Russia is a home to many nationalities, I believed that studying here would provide a perfect opportunity for me to learn and appreciate the diverse cultures that are found in the world. This will help me to become more understanding, tolerant and accommodating of others; indeed, it will make me a better citizen of the world.

Since the moment I accepted my admission offer, I’ve been doing everything I could to prepare – watching videos about the institute and life in Russia, just living and breathing all things Skoltech.

Now that you’re here, what are your initial impressions?

Skoltech has surpassed all of my expectations. When I got here and we kicked off with the Innovation Workshop, I immediately understood how incredible this environment is. It’s premium – it’s top notch, fine-tuning our minds for the world out there.   

I’ve always longed to work with people from different fields, but in the past I’ve failed to connect with them. I had many innovative ideas at home that required knowledge from other fields to materialize, and I wasn’t able to make these connections because of limited resources.

Maviza enjoying a rare bit of down time with his new classmates. Photo: Skoltech.

Maviza enjoying a rare bit of down time with his new classmates. Photo: Skoltech.

Skoltech has actually set the bar for me because I get to work with the best of the best from a broad range of fields. You hardly ever get the opportunity to have all those accomplished people, all those brains, in one place. It’s a rare asset to be able to connect and meet people who actually think in that way, and that’s actually bridged a gap for me.

Since I arrived at Skoltech on Day 1, the faculty and staff have been at work blending us into one big scientific family from different groups and different places. So, they’ve actually instilled the values of intellectual diversity in us.

What do you hope to achieve in your time at Skoltech?

I understand that a career in research requires a tremendous amount of dedication and hard work. I am confident that a career opportunity in biotechnology will allow me to really challenge myself and conjure motivation in high pressure situations. I believe that through pursuing a Masters in Biotechnology at Skoltech will serve as excellent preparation for a research career and an excellent basis for further career development as a PhD student, Postdoc and research fellow.

I’m hoping in the two years that I’m here to leave an impact as well, to change the world, which is what I believe most young, aspiring scientists seek to do.

We have fantastic mentors, world class scientists at the institute, including people in the business world who can help us translate our scientific ideas into goods and services. I have no idea how to run a business, but I know that at Skoltech I have available to me the expertise of people who are willing to help, and to give me the confidence I need to succeed.

Sometimes you need people to simply encourage you – to let you know that your dreams are possible, that you can do this.

For aspiring scientists from different backgrounds, this is rare and invaluable, and Skoltech indeed offers me that opportunity to make my dreams a reality.

I look forward to rigorous training in advanced biomedical sciences, under the supervision of distinguished world class scientists at Skoltech.

Maviza pictured shortly after his arrival at Skoltech. Photo: Skoltech.

Maviza pictured shortly after his arrival at Skoltech. Photo: Skoltech.

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