Biology Runs in the Blood

Olamide Fategbe, UCI graduate student, shares his undergraduate summer program experience in UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic’s Access to Careers in Engineering and Sciences (ACES) program and his Nigerian roots

Before coming to UCI, you were at Alcorn State University, correct?

Originally, I’m from Nigeria. Yoruba is my traditional ethnic group. It’s one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, where there are more than 100 different cultures. My culture is Yoruba, which is predominantly in the southwestern part of Nigeria, and we speak Yoruba language.

I came to the U.S. for college at Alcorn State University. Mississippi was my first home here.

What brought you to Alcorn?

Back in Nigeria, I tried to get into medical school. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. The way it is in Nigeria – you get into medical school directly from high school. I didn’t get in, so my parents said to try the SATs. I tried and I passed.

Then, I applied to Alcorn and a couple of other schools. Alcorn gave me a full ride scholarship, so I decided to go there.

What was your impression of the United States?

It’s very different from Nigeria. I grew up in Lagos. People from different parts of the country live and speak different languages, but English is the national language. Everyone speaks a variation of English called pidgin English – that’s how most people communicate informally.

In Mississippi, the majority of students are indigenes of the state and everyone speaks English. The culture is also really different from Lagos.

I was the first in my family to leave Nigeria and study in the U.S. It is eye opening being from a different part of the world. It was a big culture shock, but I appreciated the experience.

There are a lot of African Americans at Alcorn. The culture is inclusive – it’s really dynamic.

How did you hear about the ACES program?

One of my professors at Alcorn – Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Stefan Cooper – previously worked at Hampton University. He had a connection to Institute Associate Director and Project Scientist Dr. Sari Mahon.

Dr. Cooper shared about the program and urged me and others to apply. I was a student in his lab, so I applied.

What did you think about the program?

It was awesome! ACES was the first internship that I had that was really rewarding and engaging. In addition to lab work, there were other sessions or events – like team building opportunities.

I gained a lot. The program was why I applied to grad school. The experience showed me that I enjoyed research and that I wanted to learn more.

Had you previously done research before ACES?

Back in Nigeria, I wasn’t exposed to research. At Alcorn, I had an internship at another university. I didn’t do any research and the program wasn’t as engaging as ACES.

The only experience I had with research was in Dr. Cooper’s lab at Alcorn. The research was mainly around organic chemistry concepts. There was a lot of reading and presenting opportunities. It gave me a head start for ACES.

What project did you work on in ACES?

I worked with Professor of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering Dr. Thomas Milner. We worked on using percutaneous coronary interventions to treat chronic total occlusions (CTOs) in coronary arteries.

The main method was using lasers and stents to treat total occlusions. In the end, I was a part of the team, writing the proposal for the project.

Did you connect with any other faculty or program leaders while you were in ACES?

A number of UCI faculty oversaw the program. Every morning, we met with a program leader, including Drs. Mahon, Venugopalan and Potma. The meetings were helpful in networking and getting to know one another.

I worked with the team in Dr. Milner’s lab. I even met other researchers – collaborators from an institution in Texas. That was a good networking opportunity too.

We also had a general meeting with students from other UCI summer research programs. I met students from other schools during those meetings.

What made you decide to come to UCI versus other schools?

I applied to schools everywhere in the U.S., including some University of California (UC) schools. I chose UCI because I felt like I had a family – a network. I already knew Dr. Mahon and others. They were supportive and helpful in navigating the application process.

Another reason why was my experience on visiting day – a day for prospective new students. Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology Dr. Peter Donovan gave us a tour. The way he depicted UCI was awesome. He sold me on the university. He’s very jovial. Naturally, that drew me to the school. I’m currently in Dr. Donovan’s stem cell biology class.

What interests you about cardiovascular research?

While doing the literature search in ACES, I discovered that heart disease, or heart failure, is one of the major causes of death in the U.S. There aren’t many treatments for this condition, besides heart repair and regeneration.

That really struck me. I wanted to see the role that biology could play in trying to solve the problem of heart disease or heart failure.

I also have a huge interest in stem cells. I thought it would be a cool research project to see how stem cells and cardiovascular research merge. For example, can we use biology to have alternative treatments for cardiac diseases?

What research are you doing now?

I’m still rotating projects. The first rotation I had was research on stem cells and the skin.

Right now, I’m working with vascular chronic kidney diseases and how chronic kidney disease relates to vascular damage in the brain.

How did you get involved with that project?

At the beginning of the year, the principal investigator (PI) gave a presentation at the faculty introduction. Her presentation was interesting, so decided that I wanted to rotate in her lab to work on the project.

My third rotation has to do with vasculature in pregnancy – blood transfer/flow between mother and fetus. Right now, I think the whole trajectory of my career is leaning toward vasculature. I one hundred percent enjoy what I am doing. It’s a win-win.

How do you like being at UCI?

UCI is a really good school. I’ve been here for six months, and I’ve enjoyed it so far.

I live on campus in graduate housing. It’s awesome. I have a strong sense of the student community and I’ve met a lot of people. I’m getting accustomed to the culture. It’s great.

Are you enjoying your professors?

The professors are great. This is where you’re kind-of struggling because grad school is very different from undergrad. In undergrad, you’re basically fed information. All you have to do is understand and pass a test.

In grad school, you are outsourcing information, and the professors are there as a guide. It can be hard to navigate, but the faculty show a readiness and willingness to help.

What would you like to do in the future?

Right now, I am certain that I will go into industry after my Ph.D. program. I may work on vascular-related projects for a big pharma company.

I also enjoy teaching. In undergrad, I was a tutor for a few years, which I enjoyed.

If you had to sum up ACES and how it impacted you, what was the biggest impact?

The biggest impact ACES had was on my decision to apply to grad school. I realized how much I enjoy research. If I didn’t have the opportunity to be a part of ACES, then I probably wouldn’t be in grad school.

What did you like most about ACES?

My favorite thing about the program is the network. UCI grad students, who were former ACES students, facilitated and advised us during ACES. That had a major impact. The grad students gave us a different perspective about what it was like to be at UCI.

I especially related to UCI grad student Chris Johnson. We connected. He shared advice. Chris was one of the first people I contacted when I arrived in Irvine. He showed me around and told me the do’s and don’ts of UCI.

UCI grad student Breyah Matthews was also helpful. I think having the grad students as a resource was a major advantage for us undergrad students.

How can we improve the program? What can we do to support other students?

It would be great to make the opportunity available to a larger group of students. There are so many students out there who could benefit.

What does your family think about you being a grad student at UCI?

My mom is a biology teacher. She has an understanding and can relate to what I’m working on – what I’m experiencing. She used to give me books to read about biology and the human body. The values she instilled – it was a no brainer to pursue science.

She’s the major inspiration behind my interest in biology. My mom is one hundred percent on board and is happy about what I’m doing.