WHEN Dr Justina Ugwah left her homeland of Nigeria and her highly-paid job working as an industrial chemist, she was full of enthusiasm and excitement at the adventures that awaited her.
Growing up, her parish priest, Father Peter Dinan was Irish and he spoke about his homeland so it was a natural move to gravitate towards Ireland when she got itchy feet.
“I was impulsive. My father couldn’t understand why I had to move away and leave such a lucrative job in the oil and gas industry. He encouraged me to go travel but to return.”
Now, 16 years on, married with three children (aged eight to 16), and on the cusp of a revolutionary breakthrough in real-time diagnosis for women with breast cancer, she looks back on that naïve leap of faith with the wisdom of time and maturity.
“I would say, if you want to travel, make sure that you first do your research about the available jobs in your chosen field.
“I was bitten by the travel bug and was determined to head to an English-speaking country. I had been to England a few times and decided I would travel to Ireland for a change.”
With the commercial landscape dominated by BioPharmaceutical companies, Justina quickly realised that her oil and gas experience did not match the available jobs in Cork.
Rudderless, and despondent, Justina volunteered with Age Action before eventually securing a job as a customer service agent with Eircom.
When her mother arrived over for a visit, she registered immediately how unhappy her daughter was and urged her to go back to education.
“My mother is my role model. She graduated with her PhD at the age of 70.”
Her mum’s encouragement was the impetus she needed, so Justina did a Masters under the guidance of Eric Moore, Director of Post Graduate Analytical Chemistry at University College Cork.
When she graduated, her youngest child was just two years old and Justina felt the time was right “to do something else to give me freedom”.
She applied to do a PhD.
Eric Moore said he had a project at hand, and offered her an internship while they sought funding for her research.
“I was lucky to secure funding under the Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Scheme with the Cork Association of Regional Anaesthetists as the enterprise partner.”
Her PhD project, called CLISTEPROBE (formerly SMARTProbe), revolved around the design of a point of care breast cancer biopsy system that can identify healthy, benign and suspected cancerous tissue, enabling radiologists to make a real-time diagnosis for women in minutes as opposed to the current 10-day wait.
It is accepted that while 100% of women who are awaiting results of a biopsy believe they have breast cancer, approximately 90% of them will actually be cancer free. CLISTEPROBE’s revolutionary approach to breast cancer diagnosis could potentially spare hundreds of thousands of women worldwide unnecessary stress and fear while they await results.
Little wonder then, that last year the company was awarded €753,000 from the Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund. An amazing endorsement for the researchers which operates out of Cork’s Tyndall National Insitute.
Eric Moore is a proponent of diversity with a research group made up of six women and three men with innumerable nationalities.
“This diversity is also evident in the CLISTEPROBE team. Eric doesn’t care about gender, skin colour, or age.”
“I can’t thank him enough for the opportunity he gave to me. He is fantastic and, by now, has become an honorary member of my family.”
Justina grew up in the Igbo tribe in Nigeria where the male child dominance ideology was entrenched in her growing up years.
“Gender role of women does not encourage western education but education in being a good wife and procreation for continuity of family lineage. Hence, they are married off young, sacrificed to marriage.”
Justina’s father was educated in England and he saw first-hand the advantage to educating women.
“As women are nurturers, his philosophy was ‘how can you cultivate an educated mindset in the next generation if the mother is not educated’.
“He gave many scholarships and believed in opportunities for the girl child to become whatever they wanted to be. He was trying to change the narrative for us but no-one was listening to him.”
Justina’s father was forward-thinking enough to know that nothing could ever become a solid reality among his tribe unless it could be first ratified by the religious leaders. The imprimatur of the Catholic priest was essential to dissolving the tribal resistance and allowing girls access to education.
“While it is pre-dominantly protestant now, we had a lot of Catholic priests when I was growing up,” said Justina.
Her father dreamed of his daughter becoming a doctor but, “out of a sense of rebellion, I chose chemistry. And loved it”, she admits.
Justina was drawn to the oil and gas business primarily in a bid to tackle pollution. However, she essentially ended up testing adulterated products and became disillusioned with the process, as she felt her results were frequently overturned.
Her work in the area of breast cancer diagnostics seems such a leap from these early days as an industrial chemist. However, as a young girl, she saw first hand the devastation that breast cancer could inflict on a family.
“Growing up, the wives of five of my dad’s friends died from breast cancer. One of these ladies was moved to our house to shield her kids from her screaming. I can still remember the sound of her screaming in pain and my fear that breast cancer was contagious. And now that we had brought it into our home, it would come for us all.
“Of course, in Africa this was pre-internet, they believed any disease they could not comprehend or cure was voodoo done to you.”
So to have designed, with the help of Yineng Wang, the sensors on the hypodermic needle that will perform the core needle biopsy to accelerate cancer diagnosis, Justina feels it’s like “coming full circle.” And it is a perfect melange of those disciplines that dominated the landscape of her education: medicine and chemistry.
“As academics, we embrace a research-mindset. I am used to talking about technology and presenting my research.
“But the New Frontiers programme at the Rubicon centre is showing me how to commercialise my product and to prepare me for the business world.
“Of all the participants on the course, I’m the only one still in a research institute.”
It is all new to Justina, the language, the processes, the pitching skills, but she has found the programme invaluable.
“I have made friends for life, a second family. Lots of whom are at similar stages of life to me.
“Juggling work and children is hard, with no time for yourself, so I’ve really enjoyed the company of those on the course.”
As Justina continues her journey moving forward in the world of breast cancer with CLISTEPROBE, she does so with the intention of not only redefining the pathway for the medical diagnostic world, and to creating more opportunities for her own children, but to laying giant stepping stones of self-belief and opportunity for those Nigerian women who see her as a role-model.
“Anything I do, I do for those who follow me. I must extend a rope for those who come behind”, she insists.
“To say to them, you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
Over the coming weeks, Linda Kenny will also interview the other seven women taking part in the New Frontiers programme in the Rubicon:
Angela Nagle of BladeBridge
Claire Keane of Second Street Bakeshop
Clodagh Ryan of CRAOI
Kate and Rebecca Popova of Everywhere English
Mary O’Riordan of HaPPE Earth
For more on the work of the Rubicon Centre see www.rubiconcentre.ie