A multi-faceted approach to life and science

When Julia Agudogo graduated in Biomedical Engineering at Duke University in North Carolina earlier this year, she did so with a stellar triumph to her credit: winning the Rice 360° annual Global Health Design Competition for her design of speculum-free cervical imaging. This, after having participated as an individual in a competition that mostly sees only team-led entries.

Julia’s win is as extraordinary as her invention – and one of many achievements this multifaceted 24-year-old African Leadership Academy alum has under her belt.

Born in Dunajska Streda, Slovakia, she grew up in Accra – her mother is Slovakian and her father, Ghanaian – where her career in medicine was almost preordained.

Both her parents are medical professions who met in Slovakia when Julia’s father attended medical school there, then moved to Ghana and set up a clinic at their home. This, says Julia, shaped her outlook on life in many ways, not least because of her mother’s approach to life. “My mother is pretty extraordinary. She’s solid; a Slovakian obstetrician-gynecologist who moved to Ghana and set up a clinic in a low-resource neighbourhood in Accra,” enthuses Julia.

Her mother’s work ethic – and overriding sense of humanity – had a huge impact. “She was incredibly hardworking; it’s not easy being a fulltime doctor – and a mum – in a foreign place. She treats everybody with lots of respect and is truly courageous and selfless.”

Her mother introduced her to healthcare: “She kept bringing babies to me. I hated that then. She also introduced me to the idea that medicine is not just about science – she would spend time listening to her patients telling her their personal problems. She was humanistic and really cared about them.

“This informed my work; the idea that you have to make someone feel safe – she was a place people came to when they were suffering domestic abuse or marriage problems. She was never dismissive of the culture and taught me that you can’t just give people drugs and dismiss them. She taught me about respecting others – that medicine is not just one discipline – people are made of many different factors – you have to look at it from not just one perspective.”

‘She taught me … that medicine is not just one discipline – people are made of many different factors – you have to look at it from not just one perspective.’

It’s this holistic approach that no doubt not only inspired Julia’s invention, but also the manner in which she aims to introduce it to the world: educating women on its uses via an art project: “One of potential uses is for self-examination for women; there are multiple trial stages, and one of the stages we’re working on is education for women on their bodies,” explains Julia, adding that not many women comfortable with bodies, some even experiencing shame at exposing it, which often prevents them from going for an examination. The core group involved in this multi-disciplinary project, which she hopes to complete by mid-2018, includes engineers, physicians and an oral historian.

Working on improvements to the device she named Calla – “It’s shaped like a Calla lily” – is not the only thing keeping her busy. “I split my time between two major projects: one is the clinical trials of the Calla, to see if physicians at Duke can use it, and optimising it according to their and patients’ feedback. I’m also working on other side projects for the lab, one being a low-cost colposcope (a device used for screening for cervical cancer); we’re trying to develop a disinfection container for it so can be used between patients.”

Julia, who shares a home with four others in a Christian living community service that is part of the Duke program, also manages to squeeze in voluntary shifts at a local hospice called Veterans Affairs, and as an assistant Sunday School teacher at Duke Chapel.

Homing in on Faith and Science

Faith is an intrinsic to Julia’s sense of self ­­– and it’s not incidental that her other home in Africa, at African Leadership Academy, is where she first explored religion. “My parents are Christian, but I didn’t go to church for most of my life; then at ALA I went to church consistently. I hadn’t really thought about religion prior to this, but my Biology teacher at ALA, Mr Scudder, who was a devout Christian, introduced me to this book, The Language of God, by Francis Collins. It’s basically about considering potential arguments for the existence of God and how Christianity fits into it. That book helped me to reconcile and understand the difference between religion and science more clearly.”

A multi-faceted approach to life and science

It’s been four years since she left ALA, but her time here had a profound effect, for many reasons. “I have so many highlights of my time there: I was peer counselor and really loved that, because it was a chance to meet people from other countries and welcome them to a place I’d come to love very much. ALA was one of the first homes I found in SA… I learned how to say welcome in all languages,” she enthuses.

While at ALA, Julia founded the ‘Yin Project’, a sustainable non-profit based in Ghana that empowers illegal child labourers by funding their apprenticeship in their chosen skills through the sale of recycled glass bracelets.

She was also involved in various cultural activities on campus, and says being in the Honours class furthered her empathy and understanding of relationships. “It helped me to understand teamwork better, and practice how to be ethical, and deal with conflict when figuring out the right way to respond when rules are broken by your peers. It taught me compromise and collaboration, and  helped me learn about discipline, confidentiality and being kind to people.”

Read more about Julia, and her winning entry, here.

Did you know? 

There is a dire need for African countries to develop and produce their own medical equipment. Most equipment in Africa is imported, and not suited to use here. The climate, unavailability of replacement parts, lack of training for staff to operate them and irregular electricity supply are just some of the factors that can render these machines inoperable. To counteract this, various African universities established the African Biomedical Engineering Consortium (ABEC) in 2012. ABEC recently successfully bid for an Intra-Africa Mobility Scheme grant. Funded by the European Commission, the 5-year project will, from 2018, build capacity in Africa for needs-based health technology research and development and, amongst others, enhance create a platform for sustained collaboration across Africa for research and teaching in biomedical engineering.

A multi-faceted approach to life and science

Read up on this initiative, first published in the South African Journal of Sciences.

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