Prof Idah Sithole Niang acquired her PhD in Biochemistry in 1988 from The Michigan State University. She has since risen in leaps and bounds to the upper echelons of science royalty, joining the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Biochemistry in 1992 and climbing to the position of full Professor in the Department and the Dean of the Faculty of Science. 

The molecular biologist took us through her journey in STEM- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics- and what it means to her and her community.

How has this science journey- your education, your milestones, the challenges, inspirations- been?

Well, I obtained a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in biochemistry at Royal Holloway College, University of London, UK. I then pursued a doctoral degree in Biochemistry at Michigan State University (MSU), East Lansing Michigan, USA working on Marek’s disease, a chicken and turkey herpesvirus, making subunit vaccines.  

I then pursued post – doctoral training at the same Institution, working on the genetics of photosynthesis in the unicellular Cyanobacterium Synechocyctis 6803 for four years, honing my bacterial genetics’ skills. 

It was during this time that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was won in photosynthesis. There was therefore a lot of excitement around understanding the architecture of the Photosystem II Reaction Center, and how electrons moved. Our laboratory demonstrated that a tyrosine residue was involved in electron transfer. It was also during this time that I won an award for plant transformation which enabled me to start working on introducing genes into plants. The Award was given to the First William L. Brown fellow and also became known as the Inaugural ISAAA fellowship.

While at MSU,  I obtained an outstanding Graduate Woman of the Year Award, given by the Faculty and Professional Women Association for Excellence and support of the Goals of Professional Women. I also got the First William Brown Fellowship in 1990, the Rockefeller Biotechnology Career Fellowship in 1992, and was a fellow of the Salzburg Seminars.

It was after that that you joined the University of Zimbabwe?

Yes. I joined the Department of Biochemistry, now known as the Department of Biotechnology and Biochemistry at the University of Zimbabwe. I started working on the genetic improvement of cowpea and collaborated with the entomology group at Purdue University with Professor Larry Murdock.  We coordinated the Network for Genetic Improvement for Cowpea in Africa (NGICA). The network thrived and later got into a partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). At NGICA, Professor Thomas J Higgins of CSIRO, Canberra Australia led the transformation work and trained a team of cowpea breeders under the network. During this time, NGICA was also concerned about the biosafety of the genetically modified (GM) cowpea, the Intellectual Property issues, so I honed my skills in biosafety and IPRs issues.

How challenging was this leap into research in Zimbabwe?

The challenge I faced was that Zimbabwe, being under economic sanctions, did not qualify for a lot of the bilateral funding that my compatriots from other countries enjoyed.  Some of my learning came from my service on various boards.  For example, chairing the AATF Board of Trustees enabled me to know and appreciate what was happening with the AATFs projects, and I learnt a lot of science.  My other opportunity was serving on the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) Governing Council, really honed my skills for insects as they do fantastic work in this area. 

Serving on the Steering Committee was equally gratifying, as we charted the course for women’s empowerment in a scientific manner. AWARDS Theory of Change was amazing. Similarly, at Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) at the Program for Biosafety Systems, being the Technical Advisor for sub-Saharan Africa offered numerous learning opportunities.  Back home I wasn’t quiescent either, serving on the Biosafety Board, Rhodes Scholarship- and the Joshua Nkomo Selection Committee meant I could spot talent a mile away, so to speak.

I served on the Research Council of Zimbabwe Board for 13 years, and as its Vice Chairperson for 10 years. I chaired the National Research and Prioritisation Committee which saw Parliament approve the National Research Priorities.  I am a member of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences and the World Academy of Sciences, and now I serve as an official nominator for VinFuture.

Within the bioscience space, how do you see the role of women in driving innovation? 

For me, it is a role they can easily pursue and make significant contributions. What is needed is for one to believe within themselves that they can do it in the first place.  There is so much value in having well-meaning mentors. Those kinds of people who are well established and open doors for you, and you being receptive and responsive to such interventions.

Can you share specific instances where your innovative approaches have contributed to advancements in the field?

In my resource-limited settings, I always endeavour to bring the cost of doing research lower. In our laboratory, we have linked all our gene expression work to light-induction.  This is huge as it means that genes will be expressed using light instead of an expensive chemical originally designed to do so. Currently, our peptide antibiotics, enzymes and vaccines are made this way. We make molecular biology grade reagents that substitute high import bills in an environment scarce on foreign currency. 

Linked to your own challenges, what difficulties do women commonly face in bioscience innovation? How can they overcome the challenges? 

All career women struggle with responding to their reproductive needs, and societal pressure to settle down. In the biosciences the challenge is that obtaining a doctoral degree is not sufficient to pursue a career in academia.  There is a need to pursue postdoctoral training, and to hone their writing skills that are required for resource mobilization and publications.  During my time, postdoctoral training took a different turn.  Within the biosciences, for example, people would train as  post – doctoral fellows in chemistry then seek further training in molecular biology in order to pursue a career in structure function relationships within biological systems e.g photosynthesis. 

What triumphs do you believe best exemplify the strength and resilience of women in science? 

The most recent example I can cite is the Nobel Prize-winning work on discovering how CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing works by Professors Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in 2020. The only Nobel Prize won by women alone! Back in 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn won a Nobel Prize for work on telomerase, an enzyme that protects telomeres in our chromosomes.

Given your expertise, how do you perceive the role of women in science in promoting the adoption of technologies, particularly in sustainable agriculture? 

I see their role as relevant- I even see them occupying the driving seat. It takes a woman to point out the importance of cookability in bean research.  It is the woman at the village level who will walk several kilometers in one direction to fetch firewood, and the same woman might walk in a completely different direction to go and fetch water so she can cook a meal for her family.  Bringing women into consultative conversations is key.
What strategies or initiatives do you think are effective in encouraging this adoption? One such example was work on developing the pod-borer resistant cowpea in West Africa. Multiple partners came into play but it was the establishment of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which brought in a deliberate policy to broker proprietary technology, royalty-free for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Cowpea is a crop grown by women. I am sure there are many initiatives out there, but here is another example: On a visit to Nigeria with the AATF, we witnessed a woman who, following a demonstration of Cassava mechanization, quickly acquired more land and increased her acreage because it was now going to be easier to plant and harvest.  As value chains are functionalized and market access is realized, it becomes easier for women farmers to participate and realize incomes and improved livelihoods.