[ skip to content ]


Twice now, Old Dominion University has served as a place of refuge and learning for Sister Agatha Munyanyi from Zimbabwe.

Three decades ago, she spent several years on the Norfolk campus studying medical technology and getting a master's degree in clinical chemistry. She had come to the United States as a young novice to avoid the revolutionary upheaval that eventually brought independence from Great Britain-and the new name of Zimbabwe-to her native Rhodesia.

This fall, after intervening years of working in medical laboratories and training technicians in her country, she returned to ODU to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. She believes the program will better prepare her to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is worse in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. Conditions over all in her country currently are bleak and sometimes dangerous, she says, and her Sisters of the Child Jesus congregation suggested that this would be a good time for her to continue her education in the United States.

"Politicians have messed up again. I am coming from a Zimbabwe suffering from economic hardships. Inflation is at 4,000 percent. When I returned to Zimbabwe in 1981 I was just in time for reconstruction after the civil war. When I go back this time, I will be involved in another kind of reconstruction," she says.

Sister Agatha, wearing a gray habit and white veil, turns heads as she moves about the Alfriend Chemistry Building to teach undergraduate classes or advise students. But she is rapidly settling in. Her ever-ready smile and soft voice, together with her reputation as a hardworking chemist, have won her dozens of friends since she arrived late in the summer.

One of her biggest champions is Patricia Pleban, associate professor and assistant chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Pleban was new to the ODU faculty in 1979 and accepted Sister Agatha as her first master's student. "She was an excellent student and you could always count on her being there, even on weekends and holidays, unless it was a religious holiday," Pleban says. "She was, I can say, a moderating force on other students."

Sister Agatha contacted Pleban in the spring of 2006 to inquire about returning to ODU to enter a Ph.D. program. But Pleban is more involved now in teaching and administrative work than in research, and could not serve as a doctoral adviser. She recommended Sister Agatha to another faculty member, Lesley Greene, an assistant professor who joined ODU in 2006, and whose research interests are similar to those of Sister Agatha.

That match has worked out well, in all sorts of ways.

Greene, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Miami, is something of a globetrotter herself, having done research and been affiliated with academic institutions in Germany, Israel and England. "I had spent seven years in England before I came to ODU, and I remembered how hard it is to get settled, even if you have family and friends in the U.S.," she says.

So Greene worked with her graduate students and others such as Alicia Herr, the chemistry department manager, to make Sister Agatha feel at home in Norfolk. One of Greene's graduate students, Hai Li from China, took it upon himself to canvass neighborhoods near campus, and he found a good home for the Catholic nun. It is a house shared by three other female ODU graduate students, each of whom is devout, one being Hindu and from Nepal and the other two Muslim from Bangladesh. "These women were looking for a roommate. They didn't want anybody who would smoke and drink and party, and that's what they got in Sister Agatha," Greene says.

"We are mature women and religious people, so our home is the ideal place for us to focus on our studies," Sister Agatha adds. One of the roommates, Trisha Ahmed, studies computer engineering and has been able to help her new Catholic friend master computational chores. "She keeps telling me, 'Sister, don't worry. I'll show you how.'"

Pleban and Herr have taken the lead in finding or donating necessities like home furnishings, cooking utensils and linens. On a recent chilly November afternoon, Sister Agatha was wearing a brightly colored ski sweater over her habit. "All of my clothes were light. When the weather turned cold I was freezing, and Professor Pleban brought this in," she said, rubbing the sweater's sleeve.

What she needs most now is transportation. Although she does drive-"I learned the first time I was here"-she cannot afford a car on the modest pay she receives as a teaching assistant. She has to depend on volunteers to drive her to church or to the grocery store.

"There's no way anyone in my country could send me money," Sister Agatha points out. "With the inflation, they'd have to send a roomful of money for it to be worth anything here."

The little bit of money she brought with her from Zimbabwe took a hit immediately upon her arrival in the United States. She was caught up in a dispute between two airlines and ended up spending more than 48 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport before she could negotiate her way onto a plane to Norfolk. "They said they required $300 for a new ticket to Norfolk and I kept telling them I did not have that money. I was saying to myself, 'Dear Lord, what have I done, coming to America!' When I finally got to Norfolk, I saw a woman with open arms in the airport and I just ran into them. It was Alicia (Herr), although I didn't know her then. All I saw was open arms and that is what I needed."

Greene says that Sister Agatha is writing a research proposal that will have her focus over the next four years on the genesis of Parkinson's disease, work that will "try to decipher the second half of the genetic code." For her first semester, the new Ph.D. student also has her hands full with teaching and preparing an application for a scholarship that could help her with expenses. She will get some extra funding during the first six months of 2008 from a multidisciplinary seed grant that Greene received in November from the ODU Office of Research.

"The training that she will get here is fundamental training that is very good, in that it carries over into many areas of biochemistry, into cloning, making proteins and characterizing proteins," Greene says.

If all goes as she plans, Sister Agatha will be 58 when she returns to Zimbabwe in 2011 as Agatha Munyanyi, Ph.D. She says she looks forward to the challenge, although there is no way for her to know whether longtime head of state Robert Mugabe will still be in power, or if political and economic unrest will have settled. "I definitely will go back. I want to teach in medical school, teach medical technologists, clinical chemistry and biochemistry. And I want to be involved in research, such as HIV/AIDS research, and especially research work that encourages other women into the field. When they see a Catholic nun doing medical research they say, 'If a nun can do it, I can do it, too.'''

"I'm sure she is a role model for women, and what she learns here will advance her country, tremendously," says Greene. "When we see foundations are falling apart, we need to do whatever we can to strengthen nations scientifically, medically, intellectually."

This article was posted on: December 12, 2007

Old Dominion University
Office of University Relations

Room 100 Koch Hall Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0018
Telephone: 757-683-3114

Old Dominion University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.