Dr. Thelma Madzima is molding future leaders and changing the way people see the world as a scientist and professor.
The Fort Valley State University (FVSU) alumna grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe. Her supportive parents, Dr. Welbourne and Rufaro Madzima, and grandfather, Dr. Alec Chibanguza, inspired her as a child. She witnessed her grandfather, who was awarded an honorary doctorate for his works, break barriers by advocating for women to further their education. One of her childhood memories is of her typing his notes.
Although intrigued by science and the arts at a young age, she was not exposed to alternative careers in science until she attended FVSU. Her uncle, a former employee, encouraged the educator and her older sister, Pamela, who played tennis for the university on a scholarship and earned an agricultural economics degree, to become Wildcats.
“Research started to inspire me instead of the medical field,” she said.
An international student, Madzima worked in the laboratories on campus. Then, Dr. Sarwan Dhir, an FVSU professor of plant biotechnology, introduced her to summer research opportunities, where she interned at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of Florida (UF).
“Those experiences continued to reinforce my interest in research. However, I was still flirting with the idea of going into pharmacy,” she admitted. “I decided to switch my major from biology to plant science.”
Madzima earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science in 2004. Her internship experience opened the door to graduate school at UF, where she earned a doctorate in plant molecular biology in 2009. She recalled befriending FVSU alumna Dr. Erika Styles, who is also a UF graduate.
“The family connection we made at FVSU continued there,” Madzima said.
Her attraction to the style of teaching and mentoring on a small campus fared well for her at the University of Washington (UW) Bothell, a smaller branch campus with primarily undergraduate students. Madzima joined the university’s faculty in 2015 as an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology in the School of STEM, Division of Biological Sciences (thelmamadzima.com). She was promoted to associate professor in September 2022.
“I would not be here if I had not been at a Historically Black University,” she said. “Most of us come from HBCUs at a disproportionally higher rate than those who come from primarily white institutions because we received that sense of belonging early in our careers. That gave us more fuel to persevere through some of the challenges.”
One of those challenges for the FVSU alumna was finding the courage to apply for the internship at Caltech. She saw no one who looked like her.
“There was no diversity on the campus, which was a barrier for sure,” she said.
Until relatively recently, Madzima is the only Black person to graduate with a Ph.D. in her graduate program at UF.
“I was dealing with all those microaggressions. What fuels me is that I never want anyone to go through the things I went through, no matter how far in rank I go,” she declared.
This further motivated her to speak up more about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues on Twitter.
“Who is going to advocate for our early career scientists? I could not sit around and wait for someone more senior than me,” she said because there are very few Black faculty in her field. “I knew that it was a risk to my career, but my silence would be too costly.”
The young researcher is using her innovative paintbrush to show change and understanding in a field that lacks diversity. She wants to recruit more underrepresented groups into STEM.
“I am very optimistic that is changing. I attend conferences and smile because there are so many more early-career researchers of diverse backgrounds. I want to keep that momentum going,” she said.
Her love for research stems from seeing the outcomes of the work. “I enjoy the impact I can make in people’s lives,” Madzima expressed.
The long-term goal of her research program is to understand how epigenetic mechanisms facilitate responses to abiotic stress in plants. She uses maize as her predominant organism of study.
“I always tell people that America is corn-fed,” she said. “I wanted to work on a crop that is important to agriculture and the economy.”
When starting this research in 2009, Madzima thought about her own upbringing in Zimbabwe.
“Zimbabwe heavily depends on maize as a crop because it is a staple. I witnessed firsthand how drought can affect maize production and yield. I wanted to understand how the environment affects the chemical tags on DNA, which ultimately affects the yield,” she explained. Her research is featured in nine publications.
Having worn many diverse hats – international student, Black woman and Black woman in STEM and academia, Madzima’s most rewarding hat is educator. As she continues to create art with science, she values her role as someone students can lean on for encouragement.
“It’s inspirational for students knowing that I went through some of the same struggles and moments of uncertainty and still made it,” she said. “Helping them achieve their dreams is paramount. They are my purpose.”