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Relationships with mentors and colleagues were instrumental in Jay Ngwenyama’s path to the Ph.D.

Njabulo “Jay” NgwenyamaFor Njabulo “Jay” Ngwenyama, the importance of mentorship and networking is a key lesson learned from his five years as a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS). Whether it was connecting with faculty members, fellow classmates, or other graduate students on the cusp of graduating, Ngwenyama said that all his Tufts relationships helped him expand his experience beyond working in the lab. Through them, he gained grant-writing skills, received career advice, learned to better navigate the Ph.D. process, and secured opportunities to present his work internationally.

As the basis for his Ph.D. in immunology, Ngwenyama, who graduated from GSBS last August and is participating in Commencement exercises this spring, studied the link between the immune system and the development of heart failure. He names Wellner Professor Pilar Alcaide, the principal investigator in the lab where he worked, as a key mentor.

“Some of the opportunities she made available weren’t necessarily a direct benefit to her. She was instrumental in helping me with public speaking and polishing presentations to give talks at conferences,” Ngwenyama said. “She is also phenomenal at networking and is continuously introducing us to people in the field and connecting us to other labs.”

Another connection, Professor Mercio Perrin, Ngwenyama’s thesis committee chair, helped him navigate the Ph.D. degree process and also made key career-related introductions. “He was really the first person to tell me that I was ready to graduate. He boosted my confidence by laying my accomplishments out very clearly for me,” Ngwenyama said. “That was a turning point for me to actually realize, ‘I am ready, and I can start thinking of the next steps.’”

One of those next steps: moving into industry. In fact, a connection from Perrin resulted in the job offer from the Cambridge biotech firm where he plans to start this month, once he finishes his postdoctoral research position this spring

“It’s been so valuable to seek out multiple mentors for different perspectives,” said Ngwenyama. “Hearing insights and guidance from people who have, more than anything else, your best interests at heart has been critically important. My faculty advisors and my fellow students have made all the difference for me. I really respect them and value their opinion.”

Ngwenyama said the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown was, in a way, fortuitous for his studies. Immediately after the March 2020 shutdown in Massachusetts, he was given a thesis defense date of May 13. Unable to visit campus and his lab, and thus with no lab work to complete, Ngwenyama said he was “forced to stay home and focus” on preparing his thesis.

Keeping in touch with friends and peers from Tufts, however, was critical to the completion of his Ph.D. “It was crucial for me to continually reach out to my colleagues who had already gone through the process for advice. Also, there were several soon-to-be graduating students across GSBS experiencing the same struggles as me, and it was valuable to stay in communication for mutual encouragement and reassurance,” Ngwenyama said.

Performing his thesis defense virtually posed a challenge, though one bright spot emerged: friends and family from all over the country attended the session virtually for support.

“At the time, it didn’t seem possible that I would be able to have a defense,” Ngwenyama said. “That was an obstacle, but I think we’ve all learned a lot in terms of overcoming those obstacles.”

Profile written by Meredith Berg.

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