The African recipient of a UNESCO-L’Oréal For Women in Science Prize in 2000, awarded annually to one woman scientist from each continent, she recently was named co-director of a new Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research—one of six such centers funded by the South African government and the only one devoted to health sciences.
Mizrahi studies the mechanisms of DNA metabolism and resuscitation in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the organism that causes human TB. M. tuberculosis has a remarkable ability to adapt to adverse conditions and persist in a dormant state from which it can reactivate to cause disease. By better understanding these mechanisms, she hopes to enable more effective tools for TB control to be developed.
HHMI: WHAT IS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FACING SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS IN SOUTH AFRICA?
VM: To become a leading African country in science and technology as well as compete meaningfully in the rest of the world, we must find ways to overcome the legacies of apartheid, particularly the enormous inequities in access to high-quality schooling. We need to prepare all South African students to be internationally competitive, and we need to create conditions so that people will want to stay and do serious science.
HHMI: ARE YOU INVOLVED IN EFFORTS TO CHANGE THINGS ACCORDINGLY?
VM: Yes, by trying to help level the playing field for talented black Africans and women. My mentoring philosophy is to provide as stimulating and supportive an environment as possible so that gifted and motivated students may realize their potential. And because I want them, as part of that goal, to be equipped to do internationally competitive science, every Ph.D. student in my lab is given the opportunity to travel abroad at least once during his or her doctoral studies. In that way, students can present their work at a conference, for example, or work in a collaborating lab.
HHMI: YOU OFTEN REFER TO THE "TRANSFORMATION IMPERATIVE." WHAT IS THAT?
VM: The practice of science in South Africa is still dominated by white males. I believe it is imperative to transform South African science in order to create opportunities for gifted black Africans and women. In my own lab, 80 percent of the scientists are women and 30 percent are black South Africans.
HHMI: THE SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT RECENTLY NAMED YOUR LAB AS ONE OF TWO PARTNERING LABS IN THE NATIONAL CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE FOR BIOMEDICAL TB RESEARCH, ONE OF SIX SUCH CENTERS IN THE COUNTRY AND A GREAT HONOR. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN, AND HOW DOES IT CHANGE THINGS?
VM: It is a very important statement by the government that it plans to invest in lab-based science, significantly and over the long term—the funding is for up to 10 years and totals several million dollars. And the university had to commit to matching a part of that amount. I was able to hire two researchers and an administrative assistant. For the first time in years, I'm more free to do science.
Photo: Louise Gubb