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Grace Mayuni and Talitha Kotzé, MSc students in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, came to the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Immunology Department in January, 2020, for a three-month stay as visiting students. But with the global coronavirus outbreak, the closing of South Africa’s borders and the suspension of international flights, their return to Cape Town was delayed. The Institute has assisted them in every way possible: Their visas have been extended until January 2021, the heads of their labs were happy to extend their stay in the lab; their friends became family; and their research did not stop for a minute. For the past four months, their return flights have been put off again and again and as of now, they are booked for the beginning of August – but that is also open to change.
Grace, who comes from Malawi, a small country in Southeast Africa, joined the lab of Dr. Rony Dahan of the Immunology Department, where she is conducting advanced research into immunotherapy for cancer, and in new technologies that will enable the production of synthetic antibodies able to regulate the strength and length of time the immune reaction will occur.
Grace: “My specialization is medical biotechnology. The research at the Weizmann Institute of Science is very relevant to my field and I am learning quite a bit. The environment at the Institute is inspiring – from the research point of view, but also its beauty and serenity of the campus. During the quarantine, although I almost never left my room in the dorms, I was consoled by the fact that I could walk around campus, to get fresh air and to absorb the beauty around me. Over the course of the quarantine, I also worked on a presentation that I presented to my lab on Zoom, and that was a very interesting experience.
When I get back to Cape Town I will be able to use all of the experience I have gained here in the lab
“As soon as restrictions where slowly lifted, I returned to the lab and in addition to the work on the research I started, I have been helping out in some COVID-19 research which took place in our lab, focused on the immune reaction of the plasma of a recovered coronavirus patients to the antigens of the virus. In this entire period of uncertainty in the shadow of corona, my friends from the lab were very supportive and they were there for me – for which I am eternally grateful. During my stay here, which has been extended beyond my expectations, I have continued my studies long distance in all of the courses required for my degree by my university. Next year, when I get back to Cape Town, I will start on the research part of my degree, and I will be able to use all of the experience I have gained here in the lab."
Talitha, who has already learned to speak some Hebrew, conducted her research in the lab of Prof. Jakub Abrahamson, also in the Immunology Department, iin a project trying to exploit a potent, highly specific immune response in various autoimmune disorders for cancer immunotherapy.
Talitha: “I have really loved being here! It is such a beautiful campus and the people here have treated me with such extraordinary kindness and generosity. Everyone in the lab is very skilled at what they do, friendly and willing to teach – which has been great. There is also a sense of wholesomeness here, where people work for the common good and as a team, which I have greatly appreciated. During the quarantine there were a few other foreign students with us in the dorms, and we managed to encourage one another. It was a period of uncertainty as how we would get back to Cape Town, but we've to stay and work here for that entire period. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be quarantined anywhere else in the world. They took care of us from the beginning and made us feel at home. In addition, despite the difficulty, I succeeded in advancing, in a significant way, the projects I had started in Cape Town, and to create new collaborations. That is, to a large degree, due to the help I received here from my PI and lab group. Until I get back, I will continue working in the lab and in parallel on my projects. Fortunately, there is no limit to what you can discover in science, especially with the colleagues and collaborators I have here – even in the time of Corona.”