• Coleman Research Group

Insights from our Study Coordinator

Updated: Jun 14

For this month’s team feature, we sat down with Obianuju Okonkwo, known to us as Uju. She is the program coordinator for the Coleman group, and we are excited to get to know her better!

SS: Welcome, Uju! To kick things off, can you actually tell me about the history of your name? I know you moved to the US when you were 5 years old. What does your name mean and when did you start going by Uju?

OO: Yes! I moved to the US when I was 5 years old from Nigeria. Obianuju is a common name in Nigeria, similar to Ashley or Mary in the US. My last name is also quite common. My dad told me that in our culture, your family name is based on the day of the Igbo market you are born on. Okonkwo comes from Nkwo, or the 2nd day of the Igbo market. Obianuju means, “born in the midst of plenty.” You can think of it as plenty happiness, plenty wealth, plenty joy, or just abundance. And Uju is a common nickname for Obianuju. I’ve been called Uju since I was born.

SS: Great! So, let’s jump right in. Tell me about your time in undergraduate.

OO: I went to Sewanee: The University of the South. I went as part of a Posse, a multicultural group of 10 students. As a Posse Scholar, you receive a full-tuition leadership scholarship and undergo extensive weekly pre-collegiate training during your senior year of high school to help bond with your Posse and make you comfortable with being a thought-provoking change leader on campus.

My Posse was the 5th Posse cohort in Sewanee’s history. I was able to forge valuable and lasting friendships with people in my Posse and the Posse cohorts above me that I stay connected with to this day. Posse also hosted yearly campus-wide retreats with Posse trained facilitators and scholars. I loved those retreats because it was a safe space to have thought-provoking discussions with my peers about race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other social issues.

Uju (orange hoodie, grey sweatpants) is pictured on the left facilitating a session about ways people think about social movements and are civically engaged, during a Posse Retreat. This session ("Revolt? Rethink? Reform?") examined civic engagement and social movements - past, present, and future.

SS: Wow! What a unique way to find your university. What did you end up studying?

OO: I took college-level classes through a federally funded program called Gear Up the summers before 10th and 11th grade. The program was facilitated by the engineering department at the University of Maryland: College Park. A lot of those classes were based in STEM, so to try something new, I took a sociology class early on in college.

I’ve always been interested in studying people, interactions, and social problems.

I ended up majoring in Psychology because it allowed me to learn more about the factors that drive people to do the things they do. My second or third year, the college started a neuroscience minor. I was really excited about that because I’m fascinated by both the social and biological aspects of human behavior. I loved learning about synapses and neurotransmitters in my neuroscience classes. So, I graduated with a psychology degree and a minor in neuroscience.

SS: How would you say you found your path in research and medicine?

OO: I’ve always been interested in medicine. Many aunts and uncles on my mother’s side are doctors and nurses so I tried to steer away from medicine; but in high school I fell in love. I was in a nutrition class, and I saw an MRI of the heart, and I thought the way the vessels pumped was really beautiful. At that point, I grew really interested in Cardiothoracic surgery. I am keeping my mind open on the way to medical school, as I’m still really interested in neuroscience and neurosurgery. I am not sure where my specific impact will be, but I am excited to see where my journey in medicine takes me.

My first experience with research was in a biochemistry bench lab, but with my academic interest in sociology, I soon found that I enjoyed behavioral sciences research more. I started working on a qualitative research project through the Life Paths Research Program directed by Sherry Hamby, PhD. Through Life Paths, I was able to go to conferences, learn more about qualitative research, and won the Sewanee’s Speaker’s Choice Award for a poster on gender differences in acts of kindness. Dr. Hamby is a powerhouse in the psychology of violence and resilience. I am fortunate that she was my introduction to professional research and that she continues to be a great mentor as I go further in my career.

SS: What did you do right after you finished your undergraduate degree?

OO: I got a volunteer position at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC as my mom was working there as a neonatal, pediatric, and child intensive care nurse. I volunteered for 5-6 months, and then transitioned into a full-time research coordinator position. I worked in palliative care research in the Translational Science department. At the same time, I worked at Southern Maryland Hospital as a medical scribe in the emergency department.

SS: When did you start working at Hopkins, and when did you start working with Dr. Coleman?

OO: When funding for the coordinator position at Children’s National was ending, I started putting out feelers to gain more research experience in a medical setting. One of the positions I received an interview for was with Dr. Coleman. I was so impressed by her work and wanted to work for a Black woman who was a leader in her field. Dr. Coleman had also done a lot of international research which excited me as I want to do global health work and research in Nigeria in the future. I had gone to Jamaica and Haiti for undergraduate outreach trips, so I knew how rewarding being on the ground helping to make positive changes to people’s lives was. I thought I could learn a lot from her in that regard as well. I had not done any work in Women’s health before, but it was something that I was really looking forward to gaining experience in. I started working in my current position in August 2017.

Jan 2012. Kingston, Jamaica. Habitat for Humanity outreach trip.

SS: Was there a moment when you realized, no matter how difficult this work might be, this work is so important?

OO: My main project here was the AIMS study – a cohort study of 225 adolescents in the Baltimore area, studying sexual behavior, STIs, and contraceptive use. I had one patient who kept testing positive for an STI at all of her follow up appointments. At this point, we had IRB approval to allow Dr. Coleman to be able to treat AIMS patients, so I was able to be more interactive in her care. I finally called her to see what was happening, and she said that while she has some access to transportation for treatment, her boyfriend had no transportation and no working cellphone, so she kept getting re-infected by him. I went to the STI nurse coordinator at JHOC and asked if there was anything I could do to get her partner treated so that she wouldn’t be re-infected. I went to his house to pick him up, and since EPT was still relatively new, the pharmacy had a lot of problems with dispatching the treatment. But eventually we figured it out.

Of course, I already knew how important access to STI treatment was but interacting with this patient firsthand really drove home that message.

SS: Tell me about the Impact Trich project. Was that your first time having real ownership over a project? What was the process like, from applying for funding to where you are in the project timeline now?

OO: Yes! I wrote the grant, and while it was very intense, I learned so much. It’s actually kind of a funny story, because I was doing a post-bac program at the University of Maryland: College Park at the time, and I submitted the grant right before I went into a physics exam. It’s also been a great skillset to learn how to manage the finances and budgets of this grant. Right now, we’re in the data analysis phase. We just got new data which we’re currently cleaning to see how each of our intervention phases played out. I’m really excited to look at this new data and see what conclusions we can draw!

SS: Do you feel like work habits or work style changed a lot over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic? Has your relationship with friends and family evolved over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic?

OO: We were sent home on March 13th, and I returned to the office August 3rd. I really liked the flexibility of work at the beginning of the COVID pandemic – for example, getting to just go downstairs to grab lunch. Also, I live with my family, so spending more time with them was really nice. My sister was always around to help decompress or problem solve when I needed a sounding board. When I was anxious about a presentation or anything, she was around to support me before the presentation and talk about how it went right after. It was a really nice comfort. And since we didn’t have any in-person recruitment, I had a lot of extra time open up which I used to learn new analysis skills.

One thing that was hard though was adjusting to a new work-life balance. Since I was working from home, I’d have to remind myself to stop working at a certain time and still spend time with family after work hours. My extended family experienced a number of deaths over the past year, so being with family to cope with those tragedies was really valuable.

Uju at a BLM rally, DC, June 2020

SS: What’s one thing that you learned here that you think you’ll take with you wherever you go next?

OO: Sometimes you have to know when to walk away from something. If your gut is telling you that something is no longer fitting for you, don’t feel that there is a scarcity of opportunities. There is a bounty of opportunities that will open for you in other spaces.

SS: What’s the most valuable lesson you think you’ve learned while at Hopkins?

OO: Be persistent. Sometimes you have to disturb people, but it’s the way to get it done. Being this persistent can be tiring, but you’ll be rewarded in the end.

SS: What advice would you give to someone younger who also wants to pursue a path in medicine and research?

OO: Make sure it’s what you want to do. It can be a hard path, and a lot of people may question you, so you need to have a lot of internal drive and not be shaken off the path you want to take.

I really love this quote: “No one else was given your vision, so they’ll never understand your why and how you choose to accomplish your goals.”

Just know that you have to find a path that’s best for you – your peers may be doing something different, and that might not be your path. If your peers are reaching milestones before you, that doesn’t diminish your joy and accomplishment when you get there too and know that the timing is different for everyone.

SS: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

OO: I want to be a practicing licensed physician. I am interested in going back to Nigeria and operating my own medical school linked to my own hospital, like the model here at Johns Hopkins. I also want to have my own medical technology company and create a way to make communication with physicians and patients about their care easier around the world.

SS: Thank you so much for your time and reflections, Uju! We are excited to see what’s next for you.

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