Research spotlight

A Q&A with Vimbai Chikwana of Dow AgroSciences

Vimbai Chikwana

Tell us about your current career position.

I have been working as a research biochemist since August 2014 at Dow AgroSciences, a company that discovers, develops and brings to market crop protection and plant biotechnology solutions for the growing world. I am part of a team that is dedicated to increasing crop yield through targeted pest management control.

What are the key experiences and decisions that have enabled you to reach your current position?

I never considered pursuing a research career, because there were no role models for me when I was thinking of what I might do with my life. For my undergraduate degree, I only joined a research lab because it was a requirement to graduate with honors. I chose to join a lab that worked on drug metabolism at the University of Zimbabwe under the supervision of Dr. Stanley Mukanganyama. I was completely transformed by the end of my final year performing research; I not only thoroughly enjoyed learning how to plan and design experiments but also realized that the discovery process was extremely fulfilling.

I was admitted to Portland State University for graduate school, where I joined a biochemistry lab focused on unveiling the enzymatic mechanisms involved in tRNA modification under the supervision of Dr. Dirk Iwata-Reuyl. In graduate school I grew significantly as a scientist through the numerous challenges I encountered. Toward the end of my graduate school work, in collaboration with Manal Swairjo’s lab at Western University of Health Sciences, we solved the crystal structure for one of the proteins I was working on. I enjoyed probing the protein structure-function relationship so much that I looked for a structural biology lab for my postdoctoral work. As a postdoctoral fellow under the mentorship of Dr. Tom Hurley at Indiana University School of Medicine, I was able to pursue mechanistic enzymology and some structural biology.

My current research utilizes technical skills and training acquired in these three labs.

What skills did you learn during your scientific training that prepared you for your current role?

The broad-based scientific knowledge I acquired during my training via coursework, mentoring and performing research was critical for me to get hired into my current position. Having an analytical approach to outlining scientific questions, designing impactful experiments, and being able to objectively interpret and analyze data are also important skills. Teamwork is important, as most scientific projects require multidisciplinary approaches to support or disprove testable hypotheses. Last but not least, keeping up with scientific literature, critically evaluating it as well as keeping up with new, emerging techniques that can shed light on previously inaccessible information, is critical to stay ahead in science.

What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in pursuing your career? What have you done to overcome it?

The biggest challenge that I am still faced with is accepting that experiments fail more often than I want them to and that this is simply a fact of pursuing scientific research. It’s important to remember that nobody knows the outcome of an experiment; if the result is 100 percent certain, then there is a chance the experiment has already been performed; repeating it is generally not as challenging or intellectually satisfying. Working in discovery-based science is exciting because we work at the edge of knowledge, and recognizing that most of the reward comes from the journey of discovery is an important element of research.

What advice would you give to young people who want to pursue a career similar to yours?

Be flexible and always be willing to learn. Research projects will come and go, but the techniques and what you learn along the way will stay with you. No person is an island. Projects that are impactful tend to be large and require a number of people with diverse skill sets to move them forward, so try to collaborate as much as possible because science is quite social in this regard. Be nice to people not only because this is the right thing to do but also because you never know when someone will have something that you want or need. Try to always remember the bigger picture and let that guide you in your experimental design. Set goals, as these will help to keep you on track. Aim to design experiments that will advance the project regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative. Never stop asking questions: Why is this experiment important? Who cares about the result? Is it of any benefit? While you might not have all the answers, it’s still important to keep asking questions. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, enjoy your work, because when you love what you do it never feels like you are working.

What can young scientists do to learn more about careers in your field?

I think it is important for aspiring young scientists to seek opportunities to perform research from an early age. There are a lot of opportunities in colleges and universities for research, and they need to take the time to seek these and learn about the numerous fields that await them. For those already involved in research, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of networking and attending conferences. Get a mentor, someone who wants you to succeed in the competitive field of science who will push you to reach your full potential.

What are your hobbies?

I love to ride my bike and jog. I enjoy the solitude I get from both activities. It gives me time to organize my thoughts and plan ahead without distractions. I also enjoy hiking, travelling and gardening.

What was the last book you read?

“Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types” by David Keirsey and Marilyn M. Bates.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.

My research supervisors all taught me something valuable that has shaped me into the scientist that I am today, in addition to the technical skills. If I had to name some attributes from each one, this is what stands out for me: Mukanganyama inspired me by his excitement and passion for science; he set the path for my career. Iwata-Reuyl — I learned perseverance in his lab; there is always a way to find answers to challenging questions. I also learned to be very critical of not only my work but of my peers too. Hurley — patience; in a crystallography lab, there is no such thing as instant gratification.

Lastly, Grete Waitz, the Norwegian school teacher who won more New York City Marathons than anyone else — her humility and athleticism made her a role model for young runners and women. She was a pioneer; at the time of her first New York victory in 1978, just 10.5 percent of entrants were women. In 2010, 36 percent of entrants were women. Waitz taught me that the road less travelled is a difficult one but that no obstacle is too great if one perseveres.

What is it that keeps you motivated?

I am part of a company that is working toward making agricultural practices more sustainable. Through increasing crop yield, we can enable farmers to better feed the ever-growing world population, projected to grow up to 9 billion by 2050. As land resources become ever more limited, there is a greater need to increase food production on the viable agricultural land that is available. In economics they call it supply and demand — if we do not increase food production as demand goes up, then food is going to become very expensive. Not all countries have the resources to continue making enough affordable food for their people using traditional farming practices. I am in a position to make a positive impact and find solutions to the food problem, which keeps me motivated.

Andrew Macintyre Andrew Macintyre is an education and professional development manager at the ASBMB.