The world-leading tuberculosis researcher on switching specialities and living in a racially divided nation

Valerie Mizrahi is the director of the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and its Molecular Mycobacteriology Research Unit. She is internationally recognised as a leader in the field of tuberculosis research, and was the first woman to be appointed a director of an extramural research unit of the South African Medical Research Council. In 2023 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. 

I was about 14 years old when I fell in love with chemistry. We were doing acid-base titration and when I saw the colour of the indicator change it just looked like magic, there was just something incredibly beautiful about it. I studied chemistry at university, raced through a PhD and was ready to remain in the field, but it was my PhD supervisor who encouraged me to think about the world of biology. Today I stand up and speak to students and I’m a biologist, but at my core, I’m still a chemist – I see chemical structures and get excited.

One of my thesis examiners was Steve Benkovic. I wrote to him and asked if he had any positions available and he said, ‘Well, you’re a physical organic chemist, we can teach you some biochemistry’. I bought myself a textbook to read on the arduous journey from Cape Town to Penn State University. I was hopelessly underqualified – all my peers were from Ivy League universities, and there was me, this kid from Zimbabwe.

I have had a charmed existence; I get paid to do what I love. I put it down to my education in the mathematical sciences and the natural sciences. We talk today about training; you ‘train’ as a postdoc, you ‘train’ as a PhD student. I was not trained, I was educated. This is such a big difference.

My lived experience is so different from the reality that young people are dealing with today that I often have to bite my tongue. I am white, I had the advantage of race and the huge privilege that came from that, educationally and opportunity-wise. I didn’t have to fight for a place at the University of Cape Town. I came back to South Africa and I was given a job without going through a competitive recruitment process.

I failed at my first Wellcome Trust grant application. I was so arrogant and confident but I was so ill-prepared – they savaged me! I came back home with my tail between my legs. I re-thought my research and I came back with much better ideas. I tried to frame it not as a failure but as a deep learning experience.

My proudest moment is when we discovered a new system in mycobacteria; a system for induced mutagenesis. And if I were to think of why I am proud of that, it’s because it came from the area of chemistry and biology that I love most; DNA metabolism.

I don’t believe in having regrets; there’s no control to the experiment of life. I’ve done the best I can in South Africa and I think impact-wise it’s been a lot easier to differentiate myself here, and to have an impact here; today my institute is a mecca of TB research.

Ada Yonath walked into the room – talk about a role model – I was almost in tears

Nothing makes me prouder than seeing the dazzling array of young African scholars whom I have had a part in supporting. They’re the ones who make me most proud; their legacies will last much longer than a few more citations of a publication.

My mentors have all been men. But, later in life, I started encountering more women. I gave a talk at the Weizmann Institute recently and Ada Yonath walked into the room – talk about a role model – I was almost in tears. In the formative stages of my career, my role model was my mother. Not a highly educated woman, but the wisest, smartest person I know.

I am deeply concerned about antimicrobial resistance. It is a problem that is here and now but somehow that sense of urgency is escaping society. We need a combination of advocacy, good funding opportunities, good young people coming into the field, bringing in ideas… because this is going to be their problem.

I live in a country with a tragic history in which people of different races were kept apart linguistically, culturally, physically and by law. So, for me, good research culture is a place that is open to all irrespective of one’s background, where everybody’s aspirations are taken into consideration and opportunities are made available to people at whatever level.

I’m facing retirement at the end of the year, and after 13 years of leading this institute, it’s enough. I’ve discovered that I really love science, but other people can do management and leadership. I can lead in different ways. Now it’s about opening up opportunities for others, writing a few papers and contributing to the TB drug discovery space.

I’m an introvert, I need time on my own and I often just go for walks on my own with my headset – I’m either listening to a New York Times podcast or a beautiful piece of music and that’s when I think. That personal time for me is something I have circumscribed, that’s the only way that I’ve stayed sane.