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Kristina Wallengren

THINK is a registered non-profit organisation dedicated to making a difference in the lives of people suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and HIV

Making a difference in the lives of people

THINK is a registered non-profit organisation dedicated to making a difference in the lives of people suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and HIV.

Consequently, THINK undertakes clinical research, training and health systems improvement with impact both locally and globally. Kristina declares, "As the director of THINK, I often say that I am the cheerleader. We are a big team of people working together to achieve results. My job is to support my team's effective functioning. For example, obtain funding for our work, write grant applications, meet with stakeholders, conduct site visits, as well as establish systems in the organisation to make sure we are able to reach the desired impact."

A career change

THINK's story starts with Kristina's desire to make a difference in the world and the thought that she was doing that too slowly. "My background is as a scientist in molecular biology, and I felt that I was saving the world one dust-particle at a time." The road from these beginnings to establishing THINK was long winded with a lot of interludes. "After working for ten years as a basic scientist, I had a career change. I wanted to see more impact in the work that I was doing, so I went back to school and studied international health - specifically epidemiology and public health. This enabled me to move to South Africa, and eventually to start THINK seven years ago," she explained.

Kristina says that she has been inspired by many people along her life journey. After completing her PHD in molecular biology, Kristina's supervisor, world-renowned Professor Hans Rosling, encouraged her to study at Harvard and truly inspired her to make a difference in the public health field through data.

Kristina had saved up money to go sailing for six months from Panama across the Pacific Ocean and her acceptance to Harvard arrived while she was in the Galapagos Islands. However, Kristina said, "I wasn't ready at that time to stop the adventure that I had started." She postponed taking up the offer at Harvard, a prospect which was also nerve wrecking, as she was concerned about how she was going to finance her studies. "However, I was able earn money through sailing a yacht from New Zealand to Alaska, which paid $100 a day that I could mostly save towards financing my studies. The sailing journey was really important in my career and became one of the most interesting door-openers to give me opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise."

Working in Africa

One of Kristina's supervisors at Harvard, Professor Megan Murray, really inspired her career further. "She sent me to work in Africa and gave me the opportunity to set up research at a hospital in Pietermaritzburg and to go for it all on my own. The trust and confidence, from her, was amazing and something that I try to replicate in my dealings with other people."

THINK started its first clinical trial in 2013 at Durban Medical Centre with a small research team providing treatment to 12 patients. Since then, THINK has created over 300 job opportunities and provided care for over 140 000 patients in eThekwini. Three new TB drugs, the first since the 1950s, have been developed and THINK is contributing to establishing their best use and bringing them to the market. Furthermore, THINK has conducted research to improve care for drug resistant TB by reducing treatment duration from two years to nine months, which has now been adopted as standard of care in South Africa. THINK isn't resting on its laurels but is working on reducing it even further to six months.

"I am amazed at what has been accomplished by THINK as a team, and thankful for the part that I have played. I find it very difficult to take credit for myself. I could never have thought about the things that we are doing at THINK on my own. There has been an organic growth of the organisation and the individuals within have made it into what it is."

Purpose finds you

The advice that Kristina would give to people is to follow your interests, and your passion will develop itself. "When you follow your interest, you develop a flair and move into a space where you are able to thrive and shine. Through that way, purpose finds you and you are able to make a difference."

In reflecting on the role of women in business, Kristina says that she does not think that women need to have a different approach to business to men. "I think that every individual needs to have an approach to business that is reflective of themselves and should be authentic. We need to all strive to learn more. To experiment more, to develop ourselves more. There is not one formula that fits all. We are all different. The most important thing to me is being authentic and true to yourself. When you bring yourself with you into every space you go, there is hardly any energy expense because you don't have to play different characters."

Continue to do more good

In the future Kristina would love to take her children sailing for an extended period of time to let them experience the awe of the world, and allow self-reflection being removed from the business of our daily lives. She would also want to see THINK sustainable and continue to make an impact in people's lives with the ethos that it was founded on. "I would like for THINK to be a place where people can be their best selves and generate more of the good stuff that we are already doing," she concluded.