March 25, 2020

PhD student passionate about women's health

Cindy Kalenga receives Women’s Resource Centre Distinguished Graduate Student award for her dedication to women's cardiovascular health

Cindy Kalenga is one of those rare individuals who fills the room with joy as soon as they enter it. Initially, it’s Kalenga’s friendliness and full-on vitality that draws one in, but those lucky enough to know her soon learn she is passionate, optimistic and altruistic.

Kalenga is a doctoral candidate in the Cumming School of Medicine under the mentorship of Libin Cardiovascular Institute member Dr. Sofia Ahmed, MD. Kalenga’s research focuses on how estrogen, in the form of hormonal contraceptives and postmenopausal hormone therapy, is associated with cardiovascular risk in women.

It’s an important topic as cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in this country. A recent study published by a national group of experts, including members of the Libin Institute’s sex and gender research collaborative, CV&Me, reveals Canadian women are understudied in cardiovascular health.

Kalenga is tackling this problem with enthusiasm, not only making it the focus of her research, but also inspiring others to consider sex and gender in their research. She is the co-lead of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Institute of Gender and Health Sex and Gender Science Trainee Network at the University of Calgary.

Kalenga’s work in this area is getting noticed. She is the 2020 recipient of the University of Calgary’s Women’s Resource Centre Distinguished Graduate Student award, which honours women who are trailblazers for issues that impact women.

“I feel validated in my work. Graduate work can be grueling, the day-to-day stuff can be difficult, so when people recognize that work, it keeps you motivated,” says Kalenga of receiving the award. “I am lucky to have some of the best mentors anyone could ask for. There are so many incredible women supporting me. It is never like I am doing this on my own.”

Knowledge gaps fuel research

It was while pursuing her graduate studies at UCalgary that Kalenga realized there is a “huge knowledge gap” in sex and gender research. Learning about these inequities was a huge motivator for Kalenga.

“Many people weren’t including both males and females in their studies,” she says. “If we can make research inclusive we can close this gap in women’s health, which will eventually change clinical practice.”

Ahmed, a kidney doctor and nationally recognized leader in health and gender research, is thrilled with the difference her student is making.

"Not only is Cindy's graduate work moving the dial on women's cardiovascular health, she is helping to change the culture of research — to help others realize the incredible impact their work can have through incorporation of sex and gender considerations into their own research," she says.

Kalenga was born in the Congo, but doesn’t remember living there, as her family fled the country when Kalenga was less than a year old. Her family arrived in South Africa during the tumultuous end of apartheid.

The family was one of the first to move to a formerly white neighbourhood, and Kalenga and her brother were the only people of colour in a school of 1,000. Kalenga recalls how odd it was to interact with a new culture in the Afrikaans people, the first white people she interacted with.

Kalenga faced the challenges of racism and learning a new culture and language with strength and earned respect from her teachers and classmates as a track star and highly successful student. While doing so, she developed resilience and flexibility.

“It also made me quite tolerant,” she says. “It made me willing to learn about other people.”

At the age of nine, Kalenga and her family made another big move: they emigrated to Canada. They settled in Ottawa, where Kalenga finished high school and went on to earn an undergraduate degree in biomedical science at Toronto’s York University.

Kalenga’s next move was to Calgary, where she worked for the Calgary West Central Primary Care Network. It was during this time that she developed an interest in cardiovascular health, which prompted her to begin her studies at UCalgary.

Kalenga is grateful for her opportunities and has a strong desire to make a difference.

“I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones; many in my country didn’t have the same fate,” she says. “I have always known that I will give back.”