Youth Month 2022: Tarsisius Tiyani

Youth Month 2022: Tarsisius Tiyani

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Tarsisius Tiyani is a PhD student in Biochemistry at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He received funding from the NRF for his Master’s studies (2019 to 2021).

This is his story…

I was born in 1994 and raised at a mission school in Zimbabwe where my mother worked as a cook. I grew up in an extended Christian family comprising cousins and aunts, all under the wardenship of my retired maternal grandparents of Malawian origin. The size of my family did not match its financial dynamics such that, at an early age, I had to program my mind to have the very least of expectations from my guardians and focus on academic excellence with the hope that one day I would transform my family’s living standards for the better. This has been the driving force which has kept me on the trajectory I am on and by God’s grace, I continue to thrive both in health and academic progress.

In the fifth grade, I attended a series of classes on photosynthesis and respiration. Even though the lectures were presented at a fifth grader’s comprehension level, it was intriguing to learn how plants synthesise their own food using carbon dioxide, water, and the sun. I was further fascinated by the interdependence that exists between plants and animals where the products of photosynthesis are the raw materials for aerobic cellular respiration in animals and vice versa. Since then, my love for science increased exponentially.

The STEM courses I took as a rising sophomore ignited my long-term passion to be a scientific researcher post high school. I did my Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) after which I moved to the University of the Free State (UFS) where I pursued my Honors and Master’s degrees in Biochemistry.

Ever since my high school days, I planned to commit the time between my 20th and 30th birthday to working towards attaining the highest academic qualification while raising my level of industrial competence. I’m happy to report that I am still on that path.

I had the ambition, the passion, and the drive to contribute to the growing mountain of scientific knowledge and innovation through hands-on research but lacked the financial muscle to realise it. Not only did the NRF funding opportunities shift this narrative for me, but they immensely contributed to my peace of mind throughout my studies and eventual attainment of a Master’s degree with distinction. The funds further enabled me to finance the processes that led to me landing my current PhD position in the United States.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

As an international student, the first two years of tertiary education in South Africa were characterised by homesickness, difficult navigation through language barriers and cultural shocks. But this was a necessary learning curve which I used to my advantage as today, I can speak isiXhosa and understand some Zulu and Swati. I also developed the ability to easily assimilate into any culture or environment because I now understand and appreciate the diversity within the global village. 

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

I recently joined Dr Kevin H. Gardner’s lab at the Advanced Science Research Centre in uptown Manhattan, New York. This is where I will be conducting my PhD research focusing on extensive structural and computational biology with the long-term career aspiration of channelling the expertise gained into drug discovery and development.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

I currently volunteer as a Protein Biochemistry Research Analyst at Deep Medical Therapeutics, a South Africa-based start-up medical technology company where we build and deploy artificial intelligence (AI) solutions that optimise healthcare for Africa.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

  • CUNY Science Scholarship, United States
  • National Research Foundation Scholarship
  • Best Scientific Artifact, CATSA, Club Mykonos, Cape Town
  • Poster Presenter, CATSA, Club Mykonos, Cape Town
  • Scholarship, Natural and Agricultural Sciences Bursary, UFS
  • Scholarship, UFS Institutional Bursary
  • The Zimbabwe Presidential Scholarship
  • Graduating with distinction for my Master’s after trying twice in the preceding degrees

What are your career aspirations for the future?

One of my biggest core values is philanthropy with the concept of giving back to the community. My tertiary academic journey has connected me to numerous individuals and institutions that I intend to work with to set up drug discovery hubs and diagnostics development institutions in Southern Africa. Lastly, I intend to inspire youngsters in Africa to realise that it is a fallacy to think that the STEM fields are for the so-called “clever people” but rather it is everyone passionate and committed to it through hard work, discipline and determination.  

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