Dream, and Dream Big – Dr. Maggy Sikulu-Lord

 

Zero malaria starts with me

Maggy and I connected through LinkedIn. She is passionate about her work and her contribution towards making Africa a better place, especially through STEM for the young generation. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

Hello Maggy, thank you very much for joining us today!
Hi Winnie, it is nice to be here.

I am honoured to finally speak with you
Thank you, thank you! Tell me more about this initiative. I have read a few profiles but would love to hear more from you.

The passion for what we do was birthed as a result of looking back at my days as a student in Africa. It was always uncomfortable being in a science class! We grew up convinced that science classes were meant for boys. And the most disturbing thing was people asking me if I knew any woman who was doing what I loved, for a career. I honestly didn’t know any! So, for a young girl now, I don’t wish the same. We put out diverse stories of women who have made it in the STEM field to help inspire younger girls.
Oh okay, that is a very good thing you are doing. Please keep it up. I am delighted to be part of this cause. I have to say, when you contacted me I thought to myself, “I like this girl!”. I saw the confidence in you and being a strong supporter of anything related to STEM, this is a good cause
Thank you, Maggy! Those are very kind words.

So, my very first question is; what is your full name?
Okay! My name is Dr. Maggy Lord. Some people know me as Dr. Maggy Sikulu, others as Dr. Maggy Sikulu-Lord. It all depends on who I am talking to.

What do you do currently?
Well Winnie, I do a lot of things! If I went into details of everything I do, we might spend the whole day, haha. I will briefly run you through a few aspects of what I do that is relevant to this interview.

I am a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. My research is mainly focused on developing novel techniques for identifying mosquito hotspots. I develop techniques that can tell you where potentially infectious mosquitoes are. Traditionally, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is a preferred technique, but it is very expensive and time consuming so I decided to try something novel, simple and easy that simply uses infrared light. With this technique, you simply shine a light on a mosquito and it could tell you whether the mosquito is infected or not, what age and what species it is. I am using it to identify mosquitoes infected with different pathogens like, malaria, zika, yellow fever, Chikungunya etc. I am also testing its capacity to non-invasively (through the skin) diagnose some infections like malaria. Traditionally, people have to be pricked for blood, which is then tested for malaria or other diseases. But we have incidences for example in malaria endemic countries where people don’t feel sick when they have malaria. This makes it hard for such people to show up at the hospital for tests, yet they remain very attractive to mosquitoes. This technique will allow us to test for presence of malaria and hopefully other diseases through the skin by simply shining a beam of light on a finger e.t.c.

I also run a company; I am a co-founder of Disease Advisor PTY LTD. Here we develop novel tools to tell people when they are at risk of infectious disease. For example, if someone is travelling from an urban place where there is no malaria to a rural malaria hotspot area, our technology will alert you when you approach the malaria hotspot (This smart phone is coming up soon)

My other project known as “introducing STEM for vector-control and climate change in short iSTEM-VCCC” is a network of vector control and climate change experts around the world. These experts work with stakeholders and governments to develop community friendly tools that allow communities to engage in and implement vector control and climate change programs. Simply put, we develop platforms that can effectively be used to engage with communities to help with vector-control and climate change programs.

Apart from that I also run a charity called She Shines memorial Association Australia Inc through which we support girls’ education in rural parts of Kenya. We provide resources required to stay in school including mentorship, desks, solar lights and a learning center. During COVID-19 She Shines established the only library in a rural town in Western Kenya called Sirisia. This library has served more than 1000 students from 17 secondary schools and 14 primary schools. We have also mentored more than 500 teenage girls in three primary schools and provided desks to more than 180 students in 3 schools

Please walk us through your life journey so far
I grew up in a small village called Bungoma, in the western part of Kenya. I went to a local primary school and later joined Lugulu girls for my High school, which is one of the best schools in Kenya. I however didn’t like that school so much, so I requested my parents to transfer me to another school called Moi Girls High School which is also not so far from where I was born. I finished high in 2000 as the best student in my school. I then joined the University of Nairobi for a design course but because I didn’t know how to draw or design anything, I changed to a science degree instead. As one of the top students in my undergraduate, I was awarded a scholarship to study my Masters. This was a joint scholarship between the University of Nairobi and the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. This is where I met my PhD supervisor Dr Leon Hugo from Australia who invited me for a visit in 2009. Later that year I was awarded a scholarship to undertake my PhD here in Australia. I graduated in 2013 and started working as a post doc. In 2016 I secured my own funding to start my own research team at the University of Queensland. This is where I have been doing research since 2016, running my own team, supervising PhD students and some Postdocs.

What has been most challenging along this journey?
Being a female scientist under 40! I look younger than my age; so this is usually a challenge when I am most of the time mistaken for a student. And you know, if they think you are a student, they will treat you as one. Having to constantly defend my academic achievements to older professors and (others)! I find that a bit challenging and I don’t know how to change it, to be honest. I guess most women scientists face similar challenges though. This however has not stopped me from achieving my dreams.

How about your daily inspirations?
What inspires me daily is the ability I have to dream big, and knowing that I have the control over that. Being able to believe in myself while pursuing my dreams; that’s something no one can stop me from doing. That is my everyday inspiration; knowing that I can dream all the time! Sometimes I just have to tell myself to slow down a little bit I dream really big, haha. I love to dream, so much! And the best of it is sitting down with a piece of paper, writing down every single one of them, prioritising them and designing a plan on how they will each be achieved. Although I only achieve a fraction of them, I am happy with myself for trying

What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I love spending time with my family, my 2 girls (Lulu who is 4 and Uri who is 2) and my partner Anton. Anton has been very supportive of my career, a very smart and caring partner. He is also a Co-founder of all the companies we have established

I also love traveling around the world a lot! So you can imagine the feeling I’ve got right now during this pandemic.

Something we have also recently started doing as a family is camping and I am enjoying it. I didn’t know I would enjoy it this much at the beginning but actually I am now, probably because the girls love it so much.

I also enjoy some quiet nature walks, that’s where all my dreams are born. Meditation is another thing I love doing.

Now we can talk about the prestigious awards you have achieved
I am not a fun of talking about my own achievements but I guess if I don’t talk about them then no one will ever know that things like these are achievable!

In the last 5 years, I have received over $5M in grant funding to do the stuff that I do. And I got this funding from prestigious funding bodies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, Stars for Global Health, Australian Government e.t.c.

I also got a street named after me in my former school. I haven’t been to that school in a while but I know there is a street called Dr. Sikulu.

I have also got some other awards. I recently (May 2021) received an award from AfriQueensland for outstanding career achievements. In 2007, I received a valent-bioscience award for the best undergraduate student to pursue my Masters degree, In 2009 I got a Griffith medical research college scholarship award to pursue my PhD, 2010 I received the E. N- Marks for best student presentation award, 2011 I was a runner-up for the young investigators award during the American Society of tropical medicine and hygiene conference in Philadelphia USA and in 2014 I was awarded the best poster presentation at the NIR Conference in Iguassu, Brazil. I have also received numerous conference travel awards to South Africa, USA, and Brazil. I have been invited as a guest speaker at CDC Atlanta, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle and Path International among others.

I have published over 35 peer review publications.

What is your favourite quote?
I will start with my own; please allow me be selfish, haha.

Everyone has full control of their dreams, and you can only achieve as much as you dream.” ~ Dr. Maggy Sikulu-Lord. Remember how I was talking about dreams? I dream a lot!

The other is from my role model Michelle Obama. I read about her all the time and in any situation my first instinct would be, “what would Michelle do?” haha.. “There is no limit to what we as women can accomplish” ~ Michelle Obama.

Another one is, “You don’t have to say anything to the haters. You don’t have to acknowledge them at all. You just wake up every morning and be the best you can be. And that tends to shut them up.” ~ Michelle Obama.

What is your word of encouragement to a young girl in STEM?
Dream big and set goals in your life. Then sit down, get a pen and paper to draw intentional strategies on how to achieve those goals. For example, you dream about meeting Melinda Gates, you can mark where you are on your map and where Melinda is. Now look for who you know in-between the 2 of you that can help you connect with Melinda either via social media or through other means. Be intentional about cultivating that dream to make it a reality.

I love telling people that if they are heading for an interview and they are feeling a bit nervous, they should wear their heels and a red dress. That will do the magic, haha just kidding, it works for me though

I do believe that each one of us has a unique role to play in this universe, we just have to find what it is. I am not saying don’t do well at school, but if your skills are into designing, don’t waste time being a scientist. Just find what yours is (It could be one or several), believe in it and take that first step – it’s usually the first step that matters. Find the right mentors to help you achieve your dreams.

Thank you very much for not only looking at the young girl here, but also considering me and offering to help me in different ways. I am happy we connected Maggy! Thank you for the good work you do for Africa and the entire world.

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