Loretta Magagula: The Greater Good

Time is a luxury for most but more so for those committed to finding a cure for diseases like TB and HIV. Loretta Magagula, one of those committed ones, has spent the last few years of her life pouring over scientific journals, working on lab experiments and wondering how she will one day use her expertise for the greater good.

Doing things for the greater good is one of Loretta’s intrinsic beliefs. In fact, it’s what struck her most about the Allan Gray Fellowship. She explains that it was unlike any other scholarships in that “there was this dream behind it … and it was working towards an end goal and the end goal wasn’t my grades; the end goal was, you know, the betterment of our country.”

It was also through the Foundation that Loretta was exposed to the idea of social entrepreneurship. “I relate more to social entrepreneurship; I think that’s more in line with who I am.” She goes on to say that she does not have it in mind to make lots of money. In fact, before engaging with the Foundation she had no entrepreneurial inclination whatsoever, which is why being offered a Fellowship came as such a surprise. The Foundation no doubt saw the potential for greatness in her.

Loretta is the quintessence of what the Foundation deems Achievement Excellence. It is a Foundation Pillar defined as “the ongoing pursuit of excellence with tangible and specific focus on setting goals; a motivation to make a difference and leave a mark.” With two degrees (a BSc in Biochemistry and an Honours degree in Biotechnology) already behind her name and active plans to obtain three more, she is the picture of academic excellence. And her goals? Well, she’s set on impacting this continent by improving healthcare, specifically diagnostics. She explains that the sooner a disease can be diagnosed, the better the chances of preventing its spread and far-reaching damage.

This principle of early detection underlies the idea she came up with for developing an HIV home-testing kit. She presented her idea at the recent Startership Seminar, an event hosted by the Association of Allan Gray Fellows, aimed at eliciting and developing Fellows’ business ideas. With the help of three other Fellows, Danisa Nkuna, Dineo Lioma and Lindiwe Nkhosi, Loretta hopes to bring to market an HIV home-testing kit that will combine existing technologies in the form of a skin patch that changes colour depending on the tester’s HIV status.

Such an innovation can revolutionise this country and this continent’s healthcare landscape. And one can only hope that Loretta will come up with more ideas like the HIV home-testing kit in the near future. But first, though, she must complete her Master’s degree in Clinical Science and Immunology (she’s currently in the throes of writing her thesis). After that the plan is to do a PhD, followed by a Postdoctoral Fellowship.

I relate more to social entrepreneurship; I think that’s more in line with who I am

Loretta MagagulaIncitech Co-Founder and CTO

When encountering such intense discipline and passion, it’s always intriguing to consider their origins. In Loretta’s case it had to do with how she was raised, a favourite TV show and an embarrassing close call with her science teacher. Loretta’s parents, Ruth and Thamsanqa, took a keen interest in their children’s education. While her dad worked hard to keep her in the Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa, her mom took a more hands-on approach. She would buy books for her two girls to read, but like most children Loretta and her sister often skipped pages to find out what happened at the end. Ruth saw right through their schemes and made a habit of quizzing them on exactly those skipped bits.

As for the incident with Loretta’s science teacher; suffice it to say that a blushing moment can be a very effective wake-up call. As a last encouragement before the final year exams, her teacher noted that with a little bit of effort she would be able to get a C for science. Loretta was shocked at her teacher’s estimation of her abilities and decided there and then to prove her wrong. The result was a final-year A for science!

Her weakness for the TV show CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), she confesses, also had an influence on her choice of career. She found it incredible that so much information could be coded into one’s DNA. Admittedly, studying the real thing has spoiled the show for her a bit. She now knows that tests they conduct in mere seconds on screen actually take days in reality.

Of all the experiences that have led Loretta to choosing such a lengthy career path, the most significant and perhaps the most sobering must be the reality of illness. Several members of Loretta’s family – her grandmother, two of her aunts and her mother – are all affected by the same genetic disorder; a disorder that often had Loretta wondering if her mom would still be alive when she got home from school.

While Ruth has managed to hang on for all her daughter’s homecomings through the years, the reality is that time is a luxury. And for Loretta, in particular, time is what she’s racing against. And it’s a race she wants to run for the greater good.

Loretta Magagula is now a PhD student at the University of Cape Town and researching cancer-causing mutations in African populations. She is concentrating an breast and colorectal cancers, which are widespread in the black African population.

This is an adaptation from an article entitled, “Working towards the greater good” on the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation website and an excerpt from the “Women in Science awards” article on the Brand South Africa website.

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