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Fearless Fulbrights: Dr. Thabang Msimango

Dr. Thabang Msimango, visiting Fulbright scholar from South Africa. Dr. Msimango’s work in microbial risk assessment allows her to identify food safety hazards, and the risks they pose to human health in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

1. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you share a little bit about yourself, your research interests at UMD, and the scope of your Fulbright?

I am a Ph.D. Biotechnology student at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. I am part of the Produce Safety and Quality research group in the Department of Plant Sciences. Our research group is also part of the Department of Science and Innovation and National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security. The research we do focuses on bacterial pathogens that may contaminate leafy green vegetables. 

For my masters, I worked on food safety in school feeding schemes in South Africa. During that period, I visited 12 schools in two provinces, collected fresh produce, water, soil, contact surface and hand swabs to determine the presence, or absence of bacterial foodborne pathogens. You are welcome to read more about my work! 

My Ph.D. research is looking into using microbial risk assessment to ensure the safety of leafy green vegetables in South Africa. For my Fulbright at the University of Maryland, I am focusing on the quantitative microbial risk assessment aspect of the work. I am grateful to Dr. Abani Pradhan and the Department of Nutrition and Food Science for hosting me. 

2. What inspired you to start this process of becoming a Fulbright participant? What was your process in approaching the application?

I have always wanted to experience studying or working at an international university. I did not think it would still be possible since I had already started my Ph.D. in South Africa. I was surprised to learn that with Fulbright you can visit a university in the USA for up to nine months. I saw the call for applications but did not take it seriously until my advisor, Prof. Lise Korsten encouraged me to apply. 

I am normally slow with getting started on applications but for this one I started early. I first went through the whole application to see what was required and started planning. The application was a bit lengthy, and it required me to write what my research was about and a personal statement. It also required a sample of my writing. This is where you must put your best foot forward because every word serves to motivate you as to why you deserve to be a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright award. Starting with the application early allowed me to not only complete it on time but to revise it until it was satisfactory. I also decided on who my referees would be and alerted them early so that they could complete their part before the closing date. 

3. In 2022, the university released their new strategic plan, Fearlessly Forward. One of its core tenets is to take on the world's grand challenges. In what ways does your work contribute to supporting the common good?

Food safety is an important aspect of food security. Food must be safe for human consumption otherwise it results in illness, and sometimes death. About 600 million people fall ill due to foodborne illnesses, and 420,000 premature deaths occur globally each year as a result. Some people may even develop chronic illness as a result of foodborne illness. Antibiotic resistance also poses a huge challenge to the treatment of foodborne illnesses caused by bacterial pathogens. My research entails identifying food safety hazards (bacterial) and determining the risk they pose to human health. Research on food safety may translate into food safety regulation, policies, and laws, contributing to ensuring that food is safe for human consumption. This may save the lives of many people around the world. Food safety is also vital to achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), more especially SDG 1 (end poverty), SDG 2 (end hunger), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production) and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals). 

4. What has been the most surprising thing you've found in your research and scholarship?

There is a lot, but one that stands out for me is how interested people outside academia and science are in the work we do. While I was collecting samples from schools everyone at the schools -teachers, school children, and volunteer food handlers- would stop me to ask questions about my work. This showed me that there is a need for us to communicate more about the work we do, especially food safety work which affects everyone. Science communication is another topic that is close to my heart. I take every opportunity I get to get out of the office or lab and do science engagement activities at schools, and in the communities that we do our work in. 

5. How do you plan to carry forward what you learned and the relationships you formed while abroad?

What I have learned and am still learning at the University of Maryland is a significant part of my Ph.D. research project, so I am going to be involved with this work for a while. I hope to stay in touch with everyone and work towards collaborating on this research together. I have formed wonderful and valuable friendships with people from around the world here and would like to maintain those. We are making plans to visit each other in future. 

I also look forward to joining the Fulbright alumni networks globally and in my home country. I believe this is a great way of keeping in touch. Alumni networks also have initiatives they work on, and it would be good to get involved where I can.

6. For others that are interested in becoming Fulbright participants, what advice do you have for them? 

Apply, apply, apply! I love the quote “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” You have been working hard and doing well in your respective field, now you have a wonderful opportunity that is presented to you. It is up to you to take it and utilize it wisely. I have always known about the Fulbright scholarship but never thought I would be a recipient one day. So, even if you think or feel you will not get it, apply! 

Always have an updated CV, personal statement, this helps you set goals for yourself, so it is a good exercise to do even if it is not for an application and keep track of other things you do outside of your research or academic work. This will come in handy for all scholarships you intend to apply for. Start your application early and give yourself enough time to go through it several times and revise before you submit it. 

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Visit our Fulbright Scholars gallery to meet our fearless scholars engaging with the world. For general program information and application guidance, visit our "How to Fulbright at Maryland" section at the bottom of the page. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Email UMD’s Fulbright U.S. Scholars liaison at Scholten@umd.edu. 

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