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SASHA-GAY Wright's father did not know he had cancer. He was very health conscious — he did not smoke, he tried to maintain a balanced diet, and he exercised regularly. In 2012 he checked into the hospital for a respiratory issue and within two weeks he had died.
“There was no indication, nothing,” she told All Woman in an office at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at The University of the West Indies (UWI) last week. “They said they did find a lump, and they were going to test it, but that just completely blew my mind. I've chosen to research cancer for that reason.”
When her father passed, Wright was just about to sit her final exams for her bachelor's in biochemistry at The UWI. Her plan at the time was to join the army after graduation to pay off her student loans, but these plans changed when she was approached by a professor with the opportunity to conduct research funded by a departmental award.
“And so that kind of influenced me to choose this area for research. I figured well, I can actually do research in this area, and I'm passionate about this area. I decided to do cancer research,” she said.
The decision to accept that offer was Wright's ticket to becoming a ground-breaking cancer researcher, the interim head of biomedical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering at The UWI, owner of a catering business, and a mother — all at 28 years old.
Wright reflected on her tenure as an MPhil student, when she got an opportunity to do research at the Roosevelt University in the United States.
“It was my first time going to America, and then I was by myself in the dead of winter. That was horrible, but it was it was a good experience. I got to see what it was like in an international lab. I stayed there for about six months, and I came back and prepared my research, so that was the master's in and of itself,” she said.
After submitting her research, Wright decided to upgrade her studies to a PhD, but defending her thesis and conducting more research loomed a little further off into the distance when her son Knahari came into the picture. Wright, who was living on campus and studying, now had to divide her energy and resources to take care of herself and her son. This brought her closer to her mother.
“I got the opportunity to visit Southern University in Louisiana on a graduate fellowship, but this meant leaving Jamaica for nine months, and leaving my one-year-old baby. Thank God my mommy was in the picture. It was just me, her and my younger brother at this point, so she took care of Knahari for me while I was away, and she even took him to visit me abroad.”
But while all of this was happening, the expenses were piling up. Wright, who is a single mom, was renting and paying bills in America, and she also had the responsibility of taking care of her family back home. She and her mother, who is a mean cook, decided that they would start a catering business.
“So that's how Nai Cuisine came about,” she reflected. “Also, when I was in America, I taught English online. That is what helped me to make ends meet, because I had double the bills everywhere.”
When she returned home, she sought employment in the field of engineering, an area she is passionate about because of its ability to not just conduct research, but to create ways to use the knowledge to help people solve problems.
“I don't want to be one of those persons who researches something and puts it on a paper for a poster and then that's it,” she said.
Wright's research has so far been focused heavily on the anti-cancer properties of the Jamaican round leaf yellow yam.
“I have taken an extract from the round leaf yellow yam, and I've screened it in prostate and breast cancer lines,” she shared. “After testing and I realised that it kills prostate cancer cells and it also it kills breast cancer cells, I decided that I was going to do more work. That's when I went to Southern University and I did more work in trying to figure out how it kills them. And I figured that out, so that's what I'm trying to publish in my thesis,” she divulged.
Wright's aim for her research is to do more that write a paper on her findings — she wants to use the extract that she found in cancer treatment through nutraceuticals (foods that have medical benefits).
“It would basically be taking out the part of the yam that fights cancer, and putting that into something else that is edible — like a nutri-bar or something that is easy to consume,” she explained.
Being the head of a department in a new faculty at the university, Wright finds her role very exciting.
“I get to meet these new students who have never done this before, and have no idea what it is, and I have to steer them and let them know what to expect. I find that very exciting,” the St Mary High School graduate said joyfully.
Wright enjoys her interaction with the students, especially because she herself had no idea what to expect when she started her degree programme. She had a love for science from she was a little girl watching her father repair broken refrigerators, but she had only opted for a degree in biochemistry because she did not get accepted to study medicine at the university.
She said that the values her father instilled in her from early childhood are still what guide her today.
“I remember coming from school and every single day daddy would check my book. Mommy would check it too, but he would ensure that every day we sat and we went through what I did at school, and what I got for homework. He would buy the newspaper every Sunday, and even though I could only read the small words, he would let me fake-read the paper. I feel so sad that this is the man I looked up to the most, and he didn't get the chance to meet the man I'm raising,” she lamented.
Wright's younger brother is now 18 years old, and is also interested in becoming an engineer like their father, who worked as an engineer at a chocolate factory along with his fridge repair business.
Now the anchoring presence of her mother and her faith in God are what keeps Wright grounded. She wants to grow more in her faith, and be better able to take care of her mother, brother and son.
“I never want them to ever take a loan,” she said. “I want to be able to do that for them, to make sure they have at least a first degree. I also want to study my Bible like I study for my degree.”
But that can be a challenge, as there are only so many hours in the day. Every moment is a balancing act for the mother of an adventurous three-year-old.
“Knahari is always coming up with things for us to do. I don't know if he is getting the ideas from the TV or from home, but he'll just call me and be like, 'Mommy I want to go on a picnic', so we get a blanket and we go on a picnic.”
Although she detests it, running at Emancipation Park is a family event, because her son loves it and her mother treasures the exercise. She also still loves to read whatever she gets her hand on, just like her father encouraged her to when he was alive.