Johanna Ndamwena Amunjela, 28, is a beauty with some big brains and her research into the treatment of brain, breast and gastric cancer has already reverberated around the world.
She will present her findings at the University of Cambridge at the Genes and Cancer Conference that begins today and ends on Wednesday in the United Kingdom.
The research that Amunjela carries out at the University of Aberdeen, where she is being supervised by Dr Steven Tucker, is among the first in the world to investigate the role that specific proteins called ‘Popeye domain containing protein1, 2 and 3 or Popdc1, 2 and 3’ play in the spread of cancer.
It is hoped that understanding these proteins better will lead to treatment breakthroughs globally.
In an interview with Namibian Sun via email this past weekend, Amunjela said: “In August 2010, I lost a very close friend to cancer. He was young, merely 28 years old, with a very promising career ahead of him. We were a small group of friends and used to hang out together till his very last moments.”
She said her friend had asked her to explain his medicines to him, so he could understand exactly how each one was helping his body.
“As a newly-qualified pharmacist this was my field. I understood the mechanisms of action of each one and the rational for all the combinations of medicines he was receiving,” she said.
“We’d chat about this and it would help him be more willing to take his medicine. In his last moments though, I felt very helpless and useless. My friend was dying and all I could offer him was a glass of water. From that moment onwards, I knew I had to do something more significant with my life. That is how my passion for cancer research began,” Amunyela said.
Born in Omusati
Amunjela was born in Ondukuta village in Omusati Region. She relocated to Walvis Bay at the age of 12 and continued with her schooling at the coastal town.
She calls herself “daddy’s girl” as her father had a big influence in her life.
“He was a very courageous and visionary, a go-getter who always encouraged us to strive to become more. Since I was about five years old, he started grooming me for greatness. He would say ‘daddy’s girl, when you grow up, you will go to university, be very educated, wise and take good care of yourself’. It became a poem and I would recite it to him every other day,” she related.
Her father passed away when she was 12, but he left a strong vision of the great person she grew into.
Her mother and older brother continued looking after her and three siblings.
“As a young girl I was into academics and modelling,” she told ?
She said that when she matriculated from Kuisebmond Secondary School, she could not apply directly to study pharmacy, because of the limited matric subjects on offer.
Amunjela said she attended a pre-pharmacy course at the University of Namibia (Unam) in 2004 before moving to Cape Town.
“I studied my Bachelor of Pharmacy (Honours) at the University of Western Cape and this institution really shaped my career as a scientist,” she said.
Amunjela said after deciding to specialise in pharmacology and branch into drug discovery, she found it extremely difficult to get any funding. “After approaching many in institutions in Namibia, the Ministries of Health and Education included, my family and I eventually made a plan to fund my studies,” she said.
“It was very disheartening to see that as a very talented Namibian student at the top of my class and with so many bright ideas, my government refused to fund me time and time again. This was even harder to stomach, after seeing how well-supported other students were, even those from countries that are extremely economically worse off than Namibia,” she lamented.
She further said her life at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland was not easy, but because of the kindness of the Scottish people and immense support from her family, she managed.
She graduated with a Masters in Clinical Pharmacology, obtaining a distinction in November 2013. She was awarded the JC Petrie Prize for graduating at the top of her class.
“I then commenced my PhD studies, which is funded by the University of Aberdeen. I am immensely grateful to this institution for recognising my potential and investing in my abilities. Without their help, my cancer research ideas would have never become a reality and my potential never realised.”
Pursue your dreams
Amunjela said people should pursue their dreams with courage.
“Do not limit yourself and do not let anybody limit you. Even if nobody believes in you or supports you, you must fight for your dreams. It’s never easy, but you are worth it. Give life your very best shot and allow yourself the opportunity to see what you can truly become, when you extend yourself to the fullest capacity of your capabilities. Leave your mark on the world and make up proud.”
WINDHOEK SELMA IKELA