Women Revolutionizing Medicine
Women Who Inspire: St. Louis University Research Fellow Dr. Lalage Katunga

By Vikki Bennington, vbennington@gazellestl.com

Photos courtesy of Hess Digital Art

Dr. Lalage Katunga

Even as a small child growing up in the sub-Saharan African country of Zimbabwe, Dr. Lalage Katunga, who now has a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology, knew she was interested in science.

Her inquisitive mind looked for answers to questions like “What are bacteria?” and similar subjects that many children never even consider.

When her mother brought home stacks of books from the publishing company where she worked, Lalage gravitated toward those that discussed medical symptoms and diagnosing ailments.

“I would read those books just for fun,” she said. “They helped build my medical vocabulary.”

In high school, when she won the award for “Best in Science,” she knew where her life’s path would take her.

A research fellow in Saint Louis University’s Edward A. Doisy Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for the past year, Lalage’s primary focus is cardiovascular research – in particular – how diabetes leads to heart disease.

“My main interest is the intersection of the heart and immune system, with an overall focus on genetics and unique traits in certain populations and how those traits can lead to disease,” she said.

But the road to discovering what has become her chief focus took her across an ocean and another continent.

“In Zimbabwe, there were many public health concerns, and when I was growing up, huge issues began with HIV and AIDS,” she said.

She noticed. She was interested and wanted to help do something about it.

Consequently, her first real job was with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she worked on improving public health and nutrition.

Later, in North Carolina, where she completed her bachelor’s of science degree in biology, cell and microbiology with a minor in chemistry, she studied food and its effects on the human body. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute, she studied dietary changes and nutritional transition among the Inuit populations, who had traditionally been known for minimal disease.

“In the past, this population ate more fish, and consumed a steady intake of Omega 3 vitamins, which was thought to be protective against disease – much like the study of the French helped us realize that a certain amount of red wine and olive oil are good for you,” she said. “But they have now adopted more of a Western diet, and we wanted to determine the effect of these changes on their health.”

Through her course of research, she transitioned from public health and nutrition to what food does as an active component in the development of disease.

A unique aspect in her studies at Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina where she found her real calling in research and earned her doctorate, was the fact that she worked with human patients.

“We could go into the operating room, collect human heart samples, look at free radicals and see changes – how people are affected who are black vs. white, or those with diabetes and other factors,” she said.

She is still interested in public health, too, and educating people on how obesity, diabetes and other controllable factors relate to cardiovascular disease.

“Obesity can lead to diabetes, and diabetics have a much higher rate of heart disease,” she said. “I want to help prevent heart disease, which would result in less organ transplants and eliminate the need for as many prescription drugs.

In addition to identifying therapeutics to help delay or prevent heart disease, her research is geared toward preventing progression once disease is present.

Lalage made her initial decision to come to the U.S. following years of hardship in her native county. College began at University of Zimbabwe, but local unrest caused the school to be temporarily closed. Wanting to continue her education, she made the move to the U.S. alone when she was just 22 years old.

“The transition has been good, though it is often hard when moving from a developing country. I’ve met a lot of good people along the way, and it’s allowed me to explore parts of myself that I didn’t know were there,” she said. “I feel like I have carved a niche in the cities I’ve lived, and I love St. Louis. It’s growing and emerging, and I feel privileged to be a part of that.”

Due to turmoil she witnessed in Zimbabwe, Lalage said she realizes how important it is to be part of the civic discourse, and an organization she holds near and dear is Super Heroines, Etc., focusing on empowering women to embrace their inner “nerd” through educational events, classes and workshops.

A research scientist in the medical field is not that common back home, she said, and in fact, is not all that ordinary in the United States, and Super Heroines encourages women to embrace such careers in sciences and technology.

Lalage also volunteers at Venture Café, an organization that connects innovation communities locally, nationally and globally. As an adjunct professor at Logan University, she teaches a biosciences class.

In her spare time, she writes about social causes like women’s basic and reproductive rights in lower middle income countries, access to care – basically, issues she feels strongly about. Her work has been published in “The Journal of Physiology,” “Journal of the American Heart Association,” and “International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,” among others.

Yoga is one of her personal passions, and she stays fit running three miles a day with her doodle, Conner, in tow.

As she celebrates her first anniversary in St. Louis, she is still discovering what the city has to offer, venturing out to a show at The Muny, a wine tasting downtown, or dinner at an unexplored restaurant. Lalage’s website and blog can be found at lalagekatunga.com.