Chinweike Okegbe is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.
Chinweike Okegbe’s parents considered two possible careers for their talented oldest child: doctor or engineer. Living in Abuja, Nigeria, where his mother worked as a teacher and his father as a civil servant, he understood the importance of pursing a stable, well-paying occupation.
Since Okegbe had naturally gravitated to science and biology at the private, Jesuit high school he attended in Nigeria, he was sure of the career path he would pursue. He would travel to the United States, with its better university system, and become a physician.
Howard University offered him the prestigious Founder’s scholarship, and Okegbe planned to enter a fast-track program that would yield both bachelor's and medical degrees in six years. But a quirk of the scholarship program had a surprising impact, sending Okegbe on a path toward the laboratory. The scholarship would not cover the cost of the summer courses required for the fast-track program, and he could not afford to pay for the credits. Instead, in 2007 Okegbe signed up for a summer stint in the laboratory of cancer researcher and HHMI professor Winston Anderson, who had just launched an HHMI-funded initiative to encourage undergraduates to become research scientists.
Okegbe got his first taste of research, watching cells through electron microscopes and learning basic laboratory techniques. “My motivation all summer was to come in to the laboratory and see something new each day,” he says. Despite his enthusiasm for the summer project, though, Okegbe was still set on becoming a physician.
Over the next two summers, however, Okegbe delved into more intense lab work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as part of the Howard Hughes Medical Research Scholars program. In the laboratory of HHMI investigator Dianne Newman, he saw big science in action, and he liked it. He joined a study of how Pseudomonas bacteria work together in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients to form thick, slimy layers called biofilms. And he learned from failure. During a set of experiments with PCR gels, he kept seeing an unexpected band. After taking apart the experiment piece by piece, he discovered he had been using contaminated water. Discovering the source of the problem was “frustrating and exhilarating,” he says.
Okegbe learned to think about the bigger picture—how to ask research questions and design experiments to answer them. “I had never seen so many different projects under one roof,” he says. “I wanted to find out what everyone in the lab was doing because it all looked so cool. It broadened my vision of science.”
Okegbe’s mentors at MIT immediately recognized his enthusiasm and talent, which manifested itself in a spontaneous doo-wop ditty he broke into after an all-night session of staring at Pseudomonas bacteria in a microscope. “I wish I had a recording of it, because I’ve been asked about it so many times,” he says.
During Okegbe’s second summer at MIT, sponsored by HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), he returned to Newman’s lab. Soon, Okegbe had an epiphany. Newman had a Ph.D., not an M.D., and yet her work was very patient-focused. While a physician could treat a few thousand patients in his or her lifetime, Okegbe saw that a researcher with a productive career could make discoveries that might one day help millions of people. At the end of his second summer at MIT, Okegbe knew he wanted a research career. “The idea of generating knowledge appeals to me,” he says. “And I realized that that work could also be relevant to helping patients.”
Okegbe then had to break the news to his parents, who still hoped he would become a physician. With so few basic research opportunities in Nigeria, Okegbe’s parents worried that he would never find a job there. “Explaining the concept of doing scientific research was very difficult. It was unfamiliar to them,” he says. “It didn’t go down real well.”
During his junior year at Howard, Okegbe attended an American Society for Cell Biology conference and noticed a distinct deficiency: very few minority scientists attended. “It wasn’t nearly as diverse as I expected,” Okegbe says. So with Anderson, he helped launch a program to expose middle school students in minority-majority Washington, D.C., to lab life. He talked to the students about science and brought them into the laboratory, where they got a taste of science.
He hopes to return to Nigeria one day to set up science education programs for students. “We definitely need more science role models and mentors in Nigeria,” he says. “I discovered my interest in science later in life, and I’m happy the way things turned out, but I might have had a very different experience if I had had more exposure to science earlier. I might not have had so much trouble figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.”
Okegbe, 21, is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University, continuing to study how communities of Pseudomonas bacteria communicate and respond to various oxygen concentrations. He has joined the laboratory of one of his mentors at MIT, Lars Dietrich, and his first scientific paper will soon be published. “I want to generate knowledge that will be useful 100 years after my time,” Okegbe says. “I want to be part of that process.”