How I became an HIV research scientist – One Zimbabwean’s story

“Being a young woman in science, forging my career, can be challenging at times. However, I want to be an inspiration for young African girls and women to know that it is possible to fulfill your dreams and passions.” – Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Witnessing the HIV pandemic

My name is Thandeka Moyo. As a young woman growing up in Zimbabwe, my eyes have been privy to the evolution of HIV/AIDS in our country and region over the past three decades. I have not only witnessed the viral evolution (the way HIV is always changing and mutating), but also people’s perceptions toward this viral infection.  Before I reached my teenage years in the 1990’s, I already knew there was a “terrible disease” that could not be named, and which was claiming the lives of people around me. When someone died and nobody freely offered the cause, everyone knew not to ask.

In the 2000’s, things began to change. Antiretroviral therapy was more widely available, and more and more HIV-positive people were living healthy lives. But still, the stigma continued. This raised my curiosity. What is this disease, what causes it, and why is there a stigma around it?

Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Photo credit: Thandeka Moyo. ©Diamond Light Source

A growing passion – becoming an infectious diseases and HIV research scientist

From the age of 15 years old, I knew I wanted to learn about infectious diseases, what caused them and how we could eradicate them. I had no idea how I was going to achieve this goal of mine except through single-mindedly studying science-related subjects and hoping for the best!

I studied my way through the sciences in high school and successfully applied to Rhodes University in South Africa for an undergraduate degree.  In my fourth year (Honours) I undertook a malaria-related project under the supervision of Prof. Heinrich Hoppe. This was it! This was the first year I felt I was contributing to scientific research, which not only affirmed my love for studying infectious diseases but also my desire to go further and study HIV.

This led me to the University of Cape Town where I obtained both an MSc and PhD in the laboratory of Dr Jeffrey Dorfman researching within an HIV vaccine-related field. Here, I finally got to work on virus I had wished to work on all these years!

One of the biggest problems with HIV is its diversity. We concentrated on broadly neutralising antibodies towards HIV – antibodies which prevent various global strains of the virus from entering human cells and establishing infection. Broadly neutralising antibodies may be the key to an effective HIV vaccine and therefore my research focuses on studying the interactions between these antibodies and the HIV Envelope – which forms the outer coat of the virus. Knowing exactly where and how these antibodies bind to diverse strains of HIV may aid in the design of vaccine components which can trigger these antibody responses upon immunisation.

During my PhD, I had the opportunity to conduct a research visit to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, in the laboratory of Prof. Jean-Philippe Julien. I went there to conduct a portion of my research, and that is where my love for structural biology began.

Mentors and synchrotrons – collaboration through GCRF START

“Thandeka is a wonderful example of an emerging African female scientist. She is single-minded, strives to identify important scientific questions, and is generous with her ideas. She is a natural leader who is already, at this early stage in her career, carefully building capacity in structural biology.”

Professor Penny Moore, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa

For my postdoctoral studies, I have continued in HIV research but with a sole focus on protein biochemistry and structural biology in the laboratory of Prof. Lynn Morris and Prof. Penny Moore at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg. It is here that I first heard about GCRF START.

As a GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow, START has given me opportunities I could have never imagined. I now have access to a world-class synchrotron, the UK’s national synchrotron – Diamond Light Source, where I can send my HIV-antibody complexes to obtain the vital diffraction data I need for my research – to date I have used beamlines i04, i04-1 and i03. I was given the opportunity to present at the START launch event in Oxford (UK) in March 2019, and subsequently at various START meetings, Institutes and Centres, such as CAPRISA, with whom I collaborate.

One of the greatest benefits of START, however, has been the fruitful collaborations and relationships I have built with South African structural biologists who have significantly aided my career progression, and I extend special thanks to GCRF START Co-Investigators, Prof. Trevor Sewell, Prof. Dirk Oppermann and Prof. Wolf-Dieter Schubert. In addition, Diamond staff have been exceptionally helpful answering my questions and providing me with assistance during beamtime.

Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Photo credit: Thandeka Moyo. ©Diamond Light Source

Mentoring and inspiring young women in science

“Dr Moyo is a great mentor; she provides practical guidance that has been motivating and beneficial to my professional development. She is inspirational, driven and talented; it is a privilege to be mentored by her” – Zanele Makhado, Medical Scientist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa.

I have been fortunate to have found extremely supportive mentors in Prof. Penny Moore and Prof. Lynn Morris at the NICD, who have encouraged my independence and supported me throughout my Postdoctoral studies. Finding mentors and supervisors who are aligned with one’s vision is one of the most important decisions to make in this scientific journey!

The aspect of science I enjoy the most is encouraging the next generation of young women to pursue a career in academia and other science-related industries. I have been involved in school outreach initiatives from my university days which has continued throughout my postdoctoral studies with involvement in student ‘shadowing’ and through presentations to school children. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, we recently undertook outreach to school children remotely via Zoom.

I am currently a mentor to one MSc student and two medical scientists here at the NICD. All three are intelligent women with bright futures in science. It has been a pleasure working with them towards their scientific goals. Mentoring has taught me a great deal about how to support other emerging scientists and has helped me learn to effectively juggle between working on my own project, while being present to ensure I assist them with theirs.

An end to the pandemic – forging ahead with my goal

I continue to hope and advocate for the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS to be eradicated, even before the virus itself is eliminated! Those infected with HIV can live long, healthy lives on treatment and with consistent use, ensuring that with undetectable viral loads they will no longer transmit the virus to others. An HIV vaccine may be the most effective tool to completely eradicate the virus and therefore I continue to work in this field with the aim of contributing towards this important goal.

Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Photo Credit: Thandeka Moyo.©Diamond Light Source

“With more people like Thandeka and more programs like GCRF START, Science in Africa can only go from strength to strength!”  –

Professor Penny Moore, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa

Related articles and websites

Ending AIDS by 2030 is an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Click here to learn more about the science behind HIV/AIDS.