The “great people are coming”. Paediatrician and medical research scientist Dr Glenda Gray’s late father would have nodded knowingly at this phrase after Gray was chosen as one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world.
She is the second South African to make the list, following Thuli Madonsela in 2014.
Her work in determining which drugs stop HIV-positive mothers from transmitting the virus to their babies and which HIV-exposed babies should be given was recognised by the prestigious magazine.
According to the most recent figures, less than 1% of all babies with HIV-positive mothers are born HIV positive in South Africa.
Before Gray’s work about 25% of all infants born to positive mothers contracted the virus.
More than just a lab coat‚ Gray not afraid to speak out about issues close to her heart
Gray’s father died when she was a child, but she recalled his phrase the “great people are coming” in reference to the talents of his six children.
“He would always say this to us. My father expected the best. He had big expectations of us.”
James McIntyre, Gray’s partner in setting up the perinatal HIV research unit at the Chris Hani- Baragwanath Hospital, said: “South African research, including Gray’s, directly contributed to the success in preventing mother-to child transmission.
“Whether standing up to President Thabo Mbeki’s denialism, or fighting for the advancement of South African researchers, Glenda’s courage and determination have always been evident, along with her wicked and irreverent sense of humour.”
Their work led to people getting their HIV results on the same day they tested, which is now standard practice in South Africa.
Gray is more than a lab coat. In 1998, she joined a protest against Mbeki’s Aids denialism outside Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital and lay in the road to block traffic.
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She doesn’t like the spotlight but will speak out on issues close to her heart, such as appealing to the government for greater funding of scientific research.
“Science is underfunded in South Africa, most certainly. The majority of the funding I received was obtained competitively: international peer review, mostly through the National Institutes of Health in the US,” she said.
When asked what her working hours were, the mother of three responded: “Shoo, I think I am always working.
“When I wake up I try to scan e-mails. If I am not taking the kids [out], I try to fit in some exercise.
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“I get to work between 8.30am and 9am, leave at 6pm, take calls all the way home, and do between three and five conference calls a week from home. Then I finish doing my e-mails.
“I try to write science over weekends, but I am trying to be better and have more down time.”
She learned hard work from watching her mom raise six children on her own.
“We grew up under difficult circumstances and my mom was an incredibly hard worker, and I guess we learnt about hard work from the best. She worked as a labourer on our farm, worked in the fields harvesting lucerne, tomatoes, milking cows and raising a family.
“We struggled on the farm to make ends meet. I saw what sacrifice and putting others first was.”
PHOTO: GREAT PEOPLE: Eminent scientist Glenda Gray learnt about hard work from her mother, who tilled fields on the family farm
Image by: MUJAHID SAFO DIEN/AFP