Youth Month Feature: Loren Rockman

Meet Miss Loren Rockman, a masters candidate within the Clinical Mycobacteriology & Epidemiology (CLIME) Research Group at Stellenbosch University’s Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

In celebration of Youth Month 2020, the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics is paying tribute to young researchers within our institute. We share heart-warming stories of our students whose lives give us great hope for the future of South Africa. We thank these students for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and their research.

Tell us briefly about your background?

I was born and raised in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. I am the youngest of three children and one of the very few in my family who had the opportunity to go to university. I completed my matric in 2013 at Gelvandale Senior Secondary School and fulfilled the duty of head girl, amongst various other leadership roles.

I started my tertiary studies at the age of 19 and I completed a BSc degree in Human Life sciences at Stellenbosch University in 2018. I completed my honours degree at Stellenbosch University, Tygerberg Medical campus in 2019 which focused on the non-sputum diagnosis of EPTB. The Division I am part of mainly focuses on TB research. The laboratory I’m part of, named CLIME (Clinical Microbiology and Epidemiology)does innovative research and focuses on TB diagnostics, particularly the Gene Xpert MTB/RIF assay and Gene Xpert MTB/RIF Ultra(Cepheid, Sunnyvale, California), endorsed by The World Health Organisation (WHO).

Why did you choose your field of study – what or who inspired you? Is this what you envisioned for yourself growing up?

Growing up, I have always wanted to be a medical doctor, but ever since my TB diagnosis in 2017 I  believe that, that experience is what motivated and inspired me to continue my career in the research of TB and I can sincerely say that it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have never been more happier doing the work that I do and nothing else gives me greater passion than to know I could somewhat make a difference in this world.

What is your research focus on?

My research focuses on finding new and improved methods to diagnose Tuberculosis in patients. This includes specifically the use of the GeneXpert Ultra (Ultra) on non-sputum samples such as tongue swabs and oral washes for the diagnosis of TB in patients who are initiated on antiretroviral therapy as these patients often cannot expectorate sputum that is needed for microbiological testing to confirm TB disease. Ultra is a highly sensitive and rapid test that is endorsed by the WHO that can tell the health care professional the TB result of the patient as well its resistance to the first-line therapy drug, Rifampicin. This information helps put the patient on the right treatment. Currently, there is not much literature Of Ultra on oral-based sampling for the diagnosis of TB and therefore it needs further investigation. This project is in collaboration with Dr Jerry Cangelosi at the University of Washington as he aims to validate oral swab analysis as a highly novel, non-invasive means to diagnose TB in adults and children.  

How can your research help to improve Africa and/or the lives of its people?

My project has the potential to have a great impact on TB diagnostics, particularly pulmonary TB (PTB) in anti-retroviral therapy initiators in Africa where challenges are often associated due to a difficulty in producing sputum that is needed for microbiological testing. Often sputum induction facilities are required that many parts of the world do not have access to. Not all patients in Africa have access to these facilities and thus a simple point of care method is of great importance. A better diagnostic tool can result in earlier diagnosis of TB and thus help reduce the transmission of TB as patients can be initiated on treatment sooner. This will ultimately help reduce the TB burden, especially in underprivileged and low socio-economic environments.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to get where you are today?

I grew up in a town called Gelvandale where children are often exposed to violence at an early age that is likely to be especially detrimental to a child’s well-being. It is at that early age that I decided to not conform to society and to work hard to create a better and brighter future for myself, along with the help of my parents of course. I do not come from a very privileged background and always had to rely on the financial support of my father who is the only breadwinner in our home. Despite this challenge, my parents have always provided the best that they could for my siblings and I even if it meant giving their last and depriving themselves. It is because of my parents that I am who I am and got to where I am today, and this will never go unrecognised.

In January 2017, I was diagnosed with pleural TB. Fortunately for me, it was drug-susceptible, and I was able to complete treatment (RIF, INH, PZA, EMB) within 6 months. This was a life-changing experience for me. I had to adapt to a different lifestyle and put my health first at all times, even at the cost of my studies. I had travelled to the university by use of public transport at the time and I remember the one thing that kept me going was my mother by my side every day helping me carry my books (as I was not strong enough to do this by myself) and assuring me that this too shall pass and that I needed to keep the end goal in mind. It taught me to be patient with myself and to always remain positive. Despite this life-changing experience, I believe it brought me to where I am today. It reinforced my passion and made me curious to study the TB disease as I want to know more about how it progresses and most importantly how it can be reduced through better diagnostic tools. It helps me to relate to patients and I have greater empathy than I did before. It has opened my eyes and broadened my view on life. It also gives me great honour to say that I am a TB survivor.

If you could invite any three researchers (alive or dead; local or international) to a dinner party, who would you pick and why? 

  1. Associate professor Grant Theron (SU): member of the DST/NRF Centre for Excellence in Tuberculosis Research and the SAMRC, professor in the FMHS Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics

He is diligent and does innovative research in the field of TB, he holds a P-rating from the NRF which is the highest rating available to researchers <35 years old. He has also featured in internationally competitive journals. I am honoured to be one of his students.

  1. Professor Rob Warren (SU): Unit Director of the SAMRC and CBTBR and distinguished professor in the FMHS Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics

Because of his vast knowledge, his ground-breaking research, and the numerous landmark publications in the field of TB. It would be an honour to have dinner with prof Warren and to talk about his journey to becoming a world-class scientist and earning the Chancellor’s Medal in 2018.

  1. Dr Jerry Cangelosi (University of Washington): Adjunct Professor, Global Health Professor, Env and Occ Health Sciences Adjunct Professor, Epidemiology.

His research has resulted in diagnostic product launches and company start-ups. He also led a U.S-South African Consortium to validate oral swab analysis as a highly novel, non-invasive means to diagnose TB in adults and children. His research teams have generated over 10 patents and over 75 publications in relevant areas including TB.  It is an honour and privilege to be a part of a collaborative study with Dr Cangelosi.

What is your favourite quote/saying?

Live your life as a champion, moving forward and never backwards.

Any advice for young people who are considering a career in STEM?

Be 100% certain that this is the career you want for yourself and that you are passionate about it. A career in STEM should come from the heart as you will always put in your best. The challenges will always be there, but if your heart is in the right place, you will always find a reason to carry on.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I hope to become a successful researcher as I believe my research is innovative, relevant and can make a difference in people’s lives in South Africa. I also hope to have publications from my research work that can be applied and translated into everyday life. My hope is to continue research in this field and to find breakthroughs by providing simple and rapid tests for TB.