A casual walk downstairs ended up being a life-changing decision for Africa Health Research Institute’s Animal Facility Laboratory Supervisor, Chivonne Moodley. A few minutes after talking to a colleague who was anxious about filling up some empty chairs, Chivonne was sitting in a workshop outlining the requirements for the Fulbright Scholarship.

“Fulbright is really prestigious. I knew that they look for the best and brightest academically and so I thought that you had to have this brilliant academic record to apply. The talk convinced me to apply because it revealed that they also look at who you are as a person, and what you would have to offer as a Fulbright ambassador. That’s why I took the shot,” explains Chivonne.

It was a great choice. Chivonne was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and will be pursuing her PhD in TB immunology from August 2017 at Tulane University in New Orleans, USA. She says the application process was “quite intense”, because it goes on for about a year before an applicant is given the award. The first stage is the application, which includes writing two essays; one personal and the other a research essay. If you are shortlisted, an interview and a set of exams follows.

“I felt the interview went really well. They already know a lot about you and just need to know the person who has been represented on paper; what they are really like in person,” adds Chivonne.

She admits to feeling a little anxious about the change, but says she is mostly excited. “It’s going to be quite weird having to attend classes again and being this exhausted grad student, but it’s going to be an adventure.”

Chivonne joined AHRI as a lab technologist in 2012. It was in this position that she was exposed to TB research and animal research for the first time.  “I’ve been very fortunate to work with and learn from people who have so much experience, not just in animal models – but models specifically for TB,” she says.

The animal facility at AHRI provides assistance with research experiments involving mice and guinea pigs. “Sometimes the best way to learn about a disease is to use an animal model,” explains Chivonne. “We don’t just test drugs but we also look at what happens when a host is infected with particular bacteria, how does the disease itself progress.”

In October 2014, she was promoted to animal facility supervisor. “If you had told me as a student that I was going to manage an animal research lab, I would have said no way! It just wasn’t part of my training. I only dissected one rat in my undergrad! So, to be doing what I am doing here at the moment is quite a leap,” says Chivonne.

Leaving Durban for the US, she says she will miss Durban spices and the wonderful weather. She adds that she is comfortable in Durban, but doing a PhD has always been her goal.

“Being able to do my PhD in the US, funded by Fulbright, is one of the most amazing opportunities; it is beyond what I could have hoped for. I don’t know what to expect when I get there; it’s a very different educational system than I’m used to, especially with regard to the PhD, but I like to be challenged, I like to push myself and see what I am capable of,” she says.

After her PhD, Chivonne hopes eventually to get involved in bridging the gap between the laboratory and policy making in South Africa.

“I sometimes feel like the two are separate. I hope my PhD will lead to a position where I will be able to interact with groups at the policy making level. Ultimately that is where I see myself.”

Chivonne says she sees her Fulbright Scholarship as her next five-year adventure, which will be worth all the things she will have to give up now to go to a new country.

“I am certainly going to miss home, there is nowhere else like South Africa and there are no other people like South Africans, but I’ve always been the kind of person that goes after what makes me truly happy – and learning and growing in science does exactly that.”

*By Phumla Ngcobo