Lerato Hlaka

PhD Candidate, University of Cape Town

Lerato Hlaka (27) is a PhD student in the division of immunology, department of pathology at the University of Cape Town Medical School. Having been exposed to healthcare through her parents’ work at a hospital while she was growing up in Uitenhage, she initially considered studying medicine, but later came to the conclusion that one-on-one consultations would not have the impact she wanted to make.

“I realised I wanted to move beyond a one-on-one situation and focus on carrying out research that could have an impact on a bigger scale,” she says. She went on to study biological sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and embarked on her PhD at the University of Cape Town in 2015 with support from the National Research Foundation and South African Medical Research Council. She is also affiliated with South African Women in Science and the Golden Key International Honour Society.

Her research has focused on host-pathogen interactions and how pathogens exploit their host’s micro-environment for survival to control and prevent congenital transmission of helminth (parasitic worm) infections. Currently, her research work focuses on identifying and addressing potential host-directed therapeutic strategies to improve host protection against TB and bilharzia, with a view to uncovering new drug targets for treatment.

In the long term, Hlaka hopes to further her knowledge abroad and return to South Africa to continue her work in South Africa. “Ultimately I hope to find a way to open my own unit in the country, and hopefully, to contribute to improving treatment for South Africans,” she says. Hlaka is passionate about improving the lives of fellow South Africans, so she also works to mentor and tutor youths, encouraging them to work towards university and careers in the sciences .

“When you grow up in a township, you don’t always get encouraged to go to university; so I try to encourage youths to do so, even if it seems difficult. I believe that you have to ask yourself what drives you, what is your purpose, then define an end goal. Even if it’s hard, you have to make it work. In my own case, I was fortunate to have been awarded scholarships, but even so, survival is hard sometimes. I pushed, I prayed and that has kept me going toward the finish line. I still have long way to go. But I will get there,” she says.

— Tracy Burrows

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ lerato-hlaka-b556a580/?ppe=1