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  • CAREER FEATURE

From Togo to China: growing abroad as a PhD student

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Manzama-Esso Abi working at a fume cupboard in a lab.

Manzama-Esso Abi researches gene-delivery systems for cancer vaccines in Kunming, China.Credit: Cheng Jiaxing

Voices from Africa

Manzama-Esso Abi shares how, after earning her bachelor’s degree in Togo in West Africa in 2016, she moved to China. She is now studying for a PhD in clinical laboratory diagnostics at Kunming Medical University. Abi describes the importance of learning a new language and taking advantage of academic resources to take new knowledge and skills back home. This article is part of a series about the career experiences of African scientists.

I grew up in Togo and earned a bachelor’s degree in health science and biomedical analysis at the University of Lomé in 2016. I wanted to continue my schooling because I was inspired by my university professors and wanted to learn from them and gain more knowledge like them.

There weren’t any graduate opportunities at the University of Lomé in my field at the time, but I was offered a scholarship through the Great Wall Program, a visiting-scholar initiative run by the Chinese government and the commission of the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO.

It was hard leaving my family, but at the same time, I was excited to explore and learn about new perspectives from professors abroad. The one-year programme gave me a full scholarship, so I could study for free.

Getting to China wasn’t easy. It was my first time outside Togo and I had to take three flights to get there. I missed a connection, so the flight attendant arranged for me to be on the next flight to China, but I was stuck in Thailand for five hours. I was young and scared. When I boarded my flight to China, the Chinese woman sitting beside me was very friendly. She asked if I had ever been to China before. When I said no, she offered to help me.

We landed at night, when my university was closed, so the woman took me to a hotel, carried in my luggage and covered all my expenses. She even paid for my breakfast the next morning and called a driver to take me to the international school on campus where I needed to check in. I was so grateful for her help and appreciated having such a good first impression of China.

Learning the language

She spoke to me in English, which I learnt in Togo, but not as my first language. Some people are shy or unwilling to talk to you because they feel like they won’t be able to interact. But when you’re studying abroad, you need to find people who are open-minded and willing to try to speak to you even if you can’t speak the language perfectly.

Being far from home, you miss your country, you miss your family, you miss your community, but knowing the language of the country where you are living really helps. When I first arrived, I couldn’t speak Chinese, so communication was a challenge. I wanted to enrol in a Mandarin course. My lab supervisor agreed, so I spent part of my year as a visiting scholar learning Mandarin and practising English with other international students. If you don’t know the language, it is harder to incorporate yourself into the community and get to know people.

Rich in resources

I’m now in my sixth year at Kunming. After my visiting-scholar position ended in 2017, I earned a master’s degree in immunology, finishing in 2020, and then started a PhD in a different lab, studying clinical laboratory diagnostics. My research focuses on gene and nucleic acid delivery systems, such as mRNA vaccines, to ensure that individuals can be inoculated safely with treatments for melanoma and other types of cancer.

I am enjoying my PhD and tackling challenges in the lab. There are so many resources available to me here. The lab is very well equipped for doing experiments that involve cell culture, flow cytometry, immunohistochemistry and other methods. My supervisors and co-workers are incredibly helpful and supportive. They provide instructions and advice for each step of my research. Although such assistance was also available from my Togo colleagues, I have access to a broader range of technical capabilities in China.

After my PhD, I will return to my home country to work in a research laboratory where I can continue my studies on the treatment and management of cancer, as well as other diseases, in the context of the health-care system in Togo. I think I’ll have more career opportunities now, because of my experience in a research lab and doing clinical work. I am eager to share everything I have learnt with the people of my country and advance the development of my motherland. I also plan to guide and support other young people in Togo, particularly young women, so they can continue learning, studying and making a positive impact on our society, our country and humanity.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-02058-3

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