Not yet 10 years old, Itai Muzhingi was enlisted to help his mother take care of his HIV-infected aunt. The experience set him on a course that will now take him to the University of Oxford, with the ultimate goal of bringing advanced health care to the people of Zimbabwe.
This past Friday, Muzhingi was named a 2019 Zimbabwe Rhodes Scholar. Created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes, the scholarship provides two or three years of study at Oxford. Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and other attributes.
He is one of three 2019 scholars representing Zimbabwe, selected from a pool of 100 applicants. The Rhodes Trust awards scholarships to 32 scholars each year in the United States and to more than 60 in 22 other regions or countries.
“Though she was only 40, she could have easily been mistaken for an 80-year-old,” Muzhingi wrote of his aunt in his Rhodes application. Five years after watching his aunt die, a hospital strike required Muzhingi, at age 15, to nurse his brother through an illness, a “psychologically devastating” experience, he writes: “ I saw lifeless bodies lying on hospital beds, became accustomed to the smell of rotting flesh and heard patients continuously groan in pain. Slowly running a soapy towel on my brother’s back in the bathtub, I realized in those moments how fragile life can be.”
“After my brother somehow survived,” he continued, “I knew with certainty that I needed to be a physician-scientist, not only for my family but also for my community.”
At Oxford, he plans to pursue a doctorate in molecular medicine under the instruction of HIV immunologist Andrew McMichael.
Amherst has had five Rhodes scholars in the past 15 years. The most recent were Sebabatso Manoeli ’11, who won a Southern Africa Rhodes Scholarship in 2012, and Daniel Altschuler ’04, a U.S. Rhodes Scholar in 2006.
At Amherst, Muzhingi majored in biochemistry and biophysics, focusing his studies on the molecular underpinnings at work in the human body and on how HIV weakens the immune system. He was also a Koenig Scholar at Amherst. (The Koenig Scholars Program, established in 2006 by Arthur W. Koenig '66 and Yvonne Koenig, expands and strengthens the College's recruitment of talented students from Latin America and Africa.)
A Community Engagement Fellowship from Amherst allowed him to return to Harare after his first year in college to work at Parirenyatwa Hospital.
“Most of the surgeries I observed were in immunocompromised HIV-positive patients,” he wrote. “Given the long distances that some of them had to travel to get treated, it became apparent that many people faced similar yet silent demise in the countryside.”
He interned at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard for two summers, where he worked with HIV scientists on the development of antiviral strategies.
In 2015 he helped launch Stem Excel, a nonprofit that funds the salaries of high school teachers instructing children orphaned in the AIDS pandemic.
His longterm goals include bringing the latest clinical and biomedical research findings to the medical system in Zimbabwe, with an eye towards developing vaccines and finding cures for diseases common to Sub-Saharan Africa.
“With training in both molecular medicine and clinical medicine,” he wrote, “my vision is to improve healthcare delivery through setting up collaborations with other scientists worldwide and educating the next generation of physician-scientists in Zimbabwe.”