Mashudu Netsianda Bulawayo Bureau
For United States-based Dr Tatenda Shopera, his humble upbringing coupled with early life struggles punctuated by resilience, hard work, self-motivation and determination to pursue his childhood dream, played a critical role in shaping his career path.
This is an amazing story about a Zimbabwean scientist, who despite his humble beginnings, is making waves in America.
Dr Shopera has made history by being part of a team that was directly involved in the development of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine manufactured by US drug firm, Pfizer, where he is the principal scientist.
He was part of the Upstream Process Development group whose main objective is to develop state-of-the-art manufacturing processes for biotherapeutics ranging from antibodies to vaccines.
The Pfizer vaccine was officially approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in December last year.
Dr Shopera was recently honoured with a breakthrough science and innovation prize by Worldwide Research, Development and Medical Operations (WRDM) for his exceptional commitment and extraordinary contribution in the development of the Pfizer vaccine manufacturing process.
He was recently promoted from senior scientist to principal scientist (bioprocess research and development) at Pfizer Inc, an American multinational pharmaceutical corporation, which is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
Retracing his journey, which started 35 years ago in Harare’s oldest suburb, Mbare, Dr Shopera’s radiant face beams as he relives his painful experiences, which catapulted him into what he is today.
At the age of nine, his dream was to become a scientist, drawing inspiration from his parents and late elder brother, Blessing.
Since his father was not gainfully employed and his mother a vendor, the family struggled to make ends meet.
He would occasionally wash cars and sell sweets to raise money for school fees.
“To help my parents, I would wash cars near Mukuvisi River and some people in my neighbourhood, notably Mdara Diva and the late Magofingo, were actually the ones who taught me everything in the trade,” he said.
“I would also do street vending and use the proceeds to buy my school shoes, stockings and books among other necessities. In fact, I had an entrepreneurial spirit from a very young age.”
Dr Shopera said the hardships he encountered in his early childhood taught him not to give up in life easily.
“I have carried with me these lessons throughout my life and they have certainly helped me get to where I am today. I vividly recall when I was in Grade Three, I would walk from Mbare to the city centre to beg motorists to guard their cars in public parking spaces and they would pay me for my services,” he said with a chuckle.
“Despite my financial struggles, I had big dreams and was really determined to fulfil them at all costs.”
Dr Shopera said his dream has always been to make an impact at a global scale and contribute to society.
“I want to use my talents and expertise to help people and improve their quality of life. However, I honestly never imagined that I would be where I am today,” he said.
“Mostly importantly, I have taught myself that in life you have to fully embrace opportunities that come your way.”
Dr Shopera said growing up in the dusty streets of Mbare, he never imagined that one day he would make history by being part of the Pfizer team that developed the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine in record time.
He said under normal circumstances, it takes years for a therapeutic product to obtain the FDA regulatory approval. The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs and biological products in the US.
“I was part of the medical team that achieved that in August 2021 when the Covid-19 vaccine was fully approved by the FDA. This was a huge accomplishment and I am actually proud of that feat,” said Dr Shopera.
“It takes lots of hard work, dedication, focus, collaboration, self-belief, and importantly being objective. As scientists, we make evidence-based decisions that are guided by scientific data and judgement.”
Dr Shopera holds a PhD in energy, environmental and chemical engineering from Washington University in St Louis and a Master’s Degree in chemical engineering from the same university.
Between 2009-2012 he studied BSc in chemical engineering at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany.
In 2014, he won a poster award after giving a presentation about his research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 2017, he featured in the American Chemical Society Journal due to his PhD research.
Dr Shopera said although he is now based in the US, Zimbabwe remains his home and will continue to hold a special place in his heart.
“Through my expertise, my desire is to develop a world-class healthcare system in Zimbabwe, which is centred around adequately addressing people’s health needs locally, affordable healthcare, and specialised care. I am also passionate about advancing science and technology in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole,” he said.
“With the advent of some of the exciting emerging technologies in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and so on, science and technology is critical for the development of Africa and I will definitely be contributing and collaborating with others in this space.”
Dr Shopera attended Chiedza Primary School in Mbare before he dropped out in Grade Three and spent several months without going to school because he didn’t have a birth certificate.
After securing a birth certificate, he briefly enrolled at Gombo Primary School in Dzivarasekwa before he moved back to Mbare and enrolled at Chirodzo Primary School where he completed his primary education.
He proceeded to Harare High School in Mbare for secondary and high school education.
At A-Level, he studied mathematics, chemistry, physics and accounting. After passing his A Levels, Dr Shopera enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) for a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) programme.
He only attended for two semesters before he left the country for Germany after getting a scholarship.