“Stories connect the past and present to the future. Our stories and our learning from them honors and respects our ancestors and us. They can awaken future generations to their potential. They model a way to use their stories to release themselves as they connect to their history and to our values.” – Rachael Freed
My name is Edidiong Nkiruka Essien, my friends and family have called me Kiki for most of my life. One day, I will muster the courage to make other people pronounce my name correctly, but for now, Eddy is fine.
I am a graduate student at UIC-Rockford, studying Medical Biotechnology. Read my previous post on why I decided to follow this path.
I am blessed to have been surrounded by brilliant female role models for most of my life and they are a testament of who I am today and where I am going. I also want to be a role model for younger girls and that is part of the reason I have this blog.
How did I get here?
In high school, my basic science teacher was fond of drilling girls in the class and ensured that we always answered questions. I do not remember if I loved it then, but it was good for me and kept me prepared for all classes. She also taught about genetics and biotechnology, revealing that it was a course studied in the university and referenced the University of Calabar. I grew up in Calabar and even though at an early age my mum sang that I was not going to school there, this information excited me. I read more about the course and my career aspiration changed quickly from Pharmacist to Genetic Engineer. This decision was amusing to several people. I received concerned questions on what it was about, where I might work, and other related questions. While these questions may seem thoughtful, there was a certain tone accompanying them that displayed mockery. I will digress here and emphasize that it is important to follow your dreams and never be deterred by just anybody. I have a supportive family and so other opinions did not matter. I also always had a dream of moving around countries for work, and so I quickly retorted back with a country I would move to. That is the beauty of science – it is the same everywhere in the world. Researchers in Ireland and Nigeria can perform the same experiments and get similar results, considering the same conditions are met.
After secondary school, I found a university that I thought was my perfect match and studied biotechnology. Yet Again, if you have not read my previous post on why biotechnology or you need a refresher course, read it here.
I am always excited to do research, rather than some repetitive work hence, I decided to intern at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba Lagos, and every day, I am grateful for the experience.
At NIMR, I was mentored by Dr. Fowora and Dr. Smith and it was one of the best six months of my whole university experience. I applied my theoretical knowledge to practical tasks and learned even more. I made great connections and one fond memory was working with Corrine, a Ph.D. candidate who visited from Cameroon to do her research. I practically followed her work from when she started until she left Nigeria and even if I was not sure before, I was sure then, I wanted to do research – I got more excited about drug discovery.
Experience gained from NIMR came in handy in my undergraduate research, where I studied the genetic diversity of basil (because it has medicinal benefits) from all 6 states in the south-southern part of Nigeria (where I am from). It was interesting to let everyone know that there was a 98% variability among all plants used and this can be attributed to some environmental factors and cross-pollination. The more diverse beneficial plants are, the better for us because we get a greater variety of nutrients, a source of medicine, and a healthier eco-system. Like plants, humans are diverse and I cannot overemphasize the importance of diversity in society especially to drive innovation.
Just like people predicted, there were limited opportunities for me to practice all I had learned after I graduated from university, but there is something they say about passion. I believe I was passionate enough to work for free for a year at NIMR to hone my lab skills, while I prepared for graduate school.
Right now, I am a grad student at the Nanomedicine research lab under the supervision of Dr. Bijukumar (all my supervisors have always been women and I love it). Exposure and talking to people are very important because I never imagined that I would be working in nanomedicine. Yes, I wanted to work in drug and vaccine research. My research interests have always involved drug and vaccine discovery, delivery systems, and development, but I was never sure of how exactly I was going to do that. It is still my goal to work in those areas, but currently with a touch of nanomedicine, I can do these things better. My project will focus on using nanoparticles as drug delivery systems to improve therapeutic efficacy. I am nervous, but I know I am in good hands over here.
“We often think we are ordinary people, but then we find similarities with successful people and realize we are not alone, it is not just you going through that. But you would not have known if they did not share their story. Every story shared is a chance to make someone feel less alone.”
I believe that it is important for me as a young African girl to share my story. I also know that people are looking for people who look like them or have similar backgrounds in fields they aspire to join – representation matters. While I want to share more of what I am doing now and help people get the right information they need (especially in spaces I have been in where I struggled to get information), I deem it important for me to share more about where I am coming from.
I will be sharing more posts for international students now I understand how hard it is to integrate into a new environment, no matter how hard you prepared for it.
Okay, what is the moral of this story of my life that I have decided to share? Some important things that have helped me on my journey are
- My enthusiasm to learn more – Always try to learn more, do not overwhelm yourself but little steps like watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, reading blogs go a long way.
- Networking – not all so serious, but just talking to people, fellow interns, corps members, professors, and being around the right people.
- Stepping out of my comfort zone.
- Having a great support system – my family has been great, and I am so happy to have them.
- The worst mistake we can make in life is thinking that other people do not care what we have to say. You are unique and you need to tell your story.
Please share my posts with graduate students you know especially those in the sciences, they might find it helpful. I also want to have more friends in STEM.