Choonzo Chiyumba is from Zambia, Namwala district and a first year PhD student at Churchill College. She is the first recipient of the Stuart Warren Studentship.  

Choonzo attended Macha Girls Secondary School before completing a bachelor’s degree in Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Zambia in 2016. She then worked as a laboratory technician at Lusaka Apex Medical University while looking for scholarships to continue her education. Unfortunately, during this period, most Zambian degrees were downgraded by other countries which made it extremely difficult to secure admission or funding. Choonzo decided to save up to study for an honour’s degree in South Africa at Rhodes University and went on to graduate at the top of her class with a first-class degree in Chemistry. The following year, the National Research Fund (NRF) of South Africa granted Choonzo a scholarship to study for an MSc. at Rhodes, and during the same year, she made the decision to apply for a PhD in Chemistry at Cambridge. She was delighted to secure an offer to study at Cambridge, along with full funding through the Cambridge Africa Changemakers and Stuart Warren Studentship, and took up her place at Churchill College in late 2022.

The Stuart Warren Studentship was set up to mark the life and achievements of Dr Stuart Warren (1938-2020), one of Churchill’s longstanding fellows in Chemistry. Stuart had a remarkable impact on his students and influenced generations of chemists. The studentship commemorates Stuart’s inspirational teaching by funding an outstanding PhD student from sub-Saharan Africa to undertake chemistry research. One of the reasons it was decided to focus the studentship on this geographical area is because of Stuart’s connection with Professor Kelly Chibale, who was a PhD student with Stuart in the 1980s. Kelly was born and brought up in impoverished rural areas and townships of Zambia and was given the rare opportunity through a scholarship to study at Cambridge. Kelly went on to found Africa’s first and only integrated drug discovery centre, H3D, and has been recognised by Fortune magazine in 2018 as one of the 50 World’s Greatest Leaders. Crediting the high-quality academic training he received from Stuart as the foundation for who he went on to become, Kelly believes this studentship holds huge benefits for young Africans who are historically disadvantaged and under-represented in chemistry. 

Choonzo herself is clear about the impact the studentship has provided.

It means a huge amount to be the first recipient of this scholarship. It has brought my unspoken dream to study at Cambridge to life, something I could never have afforded on my own, and knowing that they are in search of the next Kelly Chibale has motivated me to work even harder.

Choonzo settled quickly into life at Churchill thanks to the warm and friendly atmosphere and quality of accommodation provided. She was also struck by what she views as the unique relationship that exists between students and staff at the College and the eagerness of staff members to provide students with help. She hopes to become an undergraduate supervisor after completing her training this term and is hugely grateful to have joined such a thriving community with its track record of academic excellence. Looking ahead to beyond her PhD Choonzo is looking forward to returning to Africa and conducting independent research in Artificial Metalloenzymes and training a new generation of African researchers with the expertise she has acquired from Cambridge.

Studying Artificial Metalloenzymes (ArMs)

The title of Choonzo’s PhD research project is “Evolving complexes between synthetic porphyrins and proteins in search for new Artificial Metalloenzymes in biosynthesis/organic synthesis”. Choonzo first developed her interest in this research area during her master’s when synthesizing photosensitive compounds that were being used as anticancer agents, and porphyrins were among the agents. She developed a keen interest and wanted to explore these molecules further using a different application and found Artificial Metalloenzymes (ArMs) to be more interesting in her readings.

Artificial Metalloenzymes (ArMs) are catalysts that consist of a protein that lacks a cofactor (reactive metal) and an organometallic or coordination complex that interacts with the protein either by covalent or noncovalent bonds, and this makes the organometallic complex the active site. This study involves the incorporation of unnatural cofactors into protein scaffolds to combine catalysis and specificity. Additionally, direct evolution and protein engineering will be conducted to improve the complexes’ catalysis further.

Dr Stuart Warren

Stuart was an outstanding leader, mentor and teacher whose ideas and example inspired generations of chemists. You can read more about Kelly and other former students who wrote in with their reminiscences.

If you would like to support this studentship or find out more information about the fund, click on the link below or contact Fran Malarée Development Director at Churchill College,