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HHMI: WHAT IS LIFE LIKE FOR A WHITE SOUTH AFRICAN IN JOHANNESBURG TODAY?
VM: The country is undergoing massive changes, and as such it is a very exciting place for people who see themselves being part of the "New South Africa," which I do. When I think back on how things have changed since I was a student in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, I realize how much better life is today for all of us. We live in a free and democratic society protected by a remarkable Constitution. I've watched my children grow up without the overwhelming burden of guilt that I felt as a privileged white child.
HHMI: DO YOU FEAR FOR YOUR OWN AND YOUR FAMILY'S AND STUDENTS' SAFETY?
VM: Johannesburg is a big, bustling city with a very high level of crime. This limits one's personal freedom and has led people who can afford it to retreat into secure neighborhoods protected by barbed wire fencing—not a great way to live. The safety of my family is foremost in my mind at all times, of course, but you can't let the fear of crime dominate your life. Also, I don't worry about the safety of my staff and students—at least, not during normal working hours—because my lab site is very secure. I do worry a little about their safety after hours, but most of them have grown up in Johannesburg or lived here for a while, so they tend to be street-smart.
HHMI: WHY DON'T YOU LEAVE?
VM: I am a second-generation African, and South Africa is my home. I love the beauty of this country, its sounds, its smells, and the wonderful climate. Every time I step off a plane here, I feel glad to be home. There is also the issue of relative impact. The reality is that I can make more of a difference here than elsewhere.
HHMI: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED FOR?
VM: Actually, I want to be put out of business by my graduates—by students like Limenako Matsoso and Betty Mowa, two talented black African women who are working toward their Ph.D.s in my lab.
Betty is from the Limpopo Province of northeastern South Africa. She is in her first year of doctoral studies and has won a prestigious bursary, which is like a graduate fellowship, from the South African government.
Limenako is from Lesotho, a small independent country located completely within South Africa. She played a central role in establishing DNA microarray technology in our lab, using a partial-genome microarray of Mycobacterium smegmatis—a close cousin of the organism that causes TB. Because the M. smegmatis microarray was constructed by former HHMI international research scholar Ross Coppel in Australia, the requisite interaction with our Australian colleagues exposed Limenako to the world of international collaborative science. After completing her Ph.D. this year, she plans to do postdoctoral training in the United States, but I want her to know that she can then come home and do great science here.
Interview by Jennifer Boeth Donovan