SFU biomedical engineering graduand sets her vision on improving lives in her home country of Zimbabwe

June 25, 2021

By Cindy Li

It all started with a high school trip to a clinic with a medical imaging centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was there that Tatendaishe Jakaza discovered her passion for medicine and engineering, and her desire to understand how imaging technology such as CT scans and ultrasound machines work. It was also then, that Jakaza became determined to make a difference through medicine and technology in her home country.

“In Zimbabwe, there is a shortage of machines and parts, and the issue of equipment breaking down with not enough experts to fix or operate the machines,” says Jakaza. “I want to improve the health and well-being of people by improving the technology in my hometown and country.”

When it came time for post-secondary education, she chose SFU as it was one of the few universities to offer an undergraduate biomedical engineering program at the time. She was also the recipient of a renewable SFU Entrance Scholarship valued at over $100,000 that covered her tuition and living costs, which further affirmed her decision to choose SFU.

As an engineering student, Jakaza had opportunities to put her skills into practice through research assistantships and co-operative education. Her first research opportunity was introduced to her through the co-op program as a Clinical Biomedical Engineer in engineering professor Marinko Sarunic’s Biomedical Optics Research Group (BORG). Through BORG and their collaboration with the Vancouver General Hospital, she gained invaluable experience in retinal optical coherence tomography (OCT), a non-invasive imaging technique for monitoring and tracking eye disease progress. She was able to witness firsthand on how medical imaging is used to help monitor patients, their retinal disease progression and how certain diseases, such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, affected eye sight. She continued to successfully complete her undergraduate honours thesis in the same lab, where she focused on creating a multiscale OCT and two-photon excited fluorescence retinal imaging system.

In addition to being deeply involved in research, Jakaza believes in giving back to the community and making an impact in the younger generation. Through SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences Outreach Program and Invent the Future: AI Scholars Program, Jakaza served as a program instructor and coordinator. In these roles, she helped design and teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workshops to elementary and high school students.

Jakaza is pictured here teaching an Arduino workshop to elementary school students visiting SFU in 2017.

“I want to empower and inspire the next generation of young students, specifically young women, to pursue a career in STEM,” says Jakaza. “I also want to show and encourage them, by using myself as an example, that it is possible to pursue a career in the male-dominated fields of science and technology.”

Jakaza also volunteered her time as a Vice President of External Relations in SFU’s Women in Engineering student group, a SFU student ambassador, and volunteer assistant at SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning.

Despite the opportunities, Jakaza continuously struggled her school- and work-life balance as well as consistently worried about her family in Harare. Like many international students, moving to Canada and away from home, came with its own set of challenges.

“It’s hard to focus on my studies without consistently worrying about my parents’ health and safety, and whether they would get the medical care they would need due to the political and economic uncertainties in Zimbabwe,” says Jakaza, who also maintained another job on top of her full course load to offset the cost of living.

She adds that doctors sometimes go on strike, preventing patients to get treatment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was especially hard.

“Zimbabwe is not as privileged to have as many testing facilities or resources as we do in North America to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which makes controlling the spread of the virus and testing more difficult.”

Additionally, her scholarship only covered four years of her tuition, but the engineering programs at SFU are five-years long. Financially anxious and experiencing burnout, she reached out to her advisor from SFU’s Financial Aid and Awards office. 

“My advisor spoke with the scholarship program and was able to extend my scholarship for another two terms,” says Jakaza gratefully. “It was also there that I opened up about my burnout and my advisor recommended that I speak to someone from SFU’s Health & Counselling office.”

“They really helped me find a healthy balance between work and school, and I wish more students would seek out counselling.”

Not losing sight of her long-term goal of improving the lives of people in her home country, Jakaza understands that patience and experience would be needed. This summer marks a significant milestone in her academic journey as she will be graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science degree with honours from the School of Engineering Science. Her next priority will be to visit family once travel restrictions are lifted with one additional objective.

“The next visit to my hometown, I want to identify gaps, scope out opportunities and start building a network,” says Jakaza. “I want to see what skills I need, where I can contribute and where I can make the most impact.”

Jakaza is currently gaining experience in administrative processes and project management as an Administrative Coordinator for the Student Affairs Unit in SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences. In the future, she plans to pursue a career in medicine or graduate studies in biomedical engineering.