cataLIST Spotlight: Chiamaka Ukachukwu, M.S.

Chiamaka Ukachukwu, M.S., is a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Jones lab where she studies the hERG potassium channel as a target for preventing and treating the onset of arrhythmia, or irregular heart rhythms that can cause sudden cardiac death.

Do you have a unique background? How has this affected your path?

I am a first-generation Nigerian-American, and I applied to graduate school programs 3 times before finally being admitted into a Ph.D. program. As a Black woman who already has a plethora of added challenges due to systemic racism, facing failure many times has been quite the obstacle to overcome. In hindsight, I am grateful for things not working out as planned because it opened doors for opportunities that were better than anything I could have imagined, and led to a lot of personal and professional development (e.g. living a year abroad in Brussels, Belgium as a Fulbright research grantee and traveling the world).

Watching Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings in real time was quite triggering, as it highlighted the experiences that Black women scholars are all too familiar with. We have to do ten times as much as our peers to have the same opportunities. My mom reminded me that one of the reasons I have excelled as a Ph.D. candidate is because my experience as a Black woman requires me to consistently go above and beyond and to navigate obstacles with grace. There’s an unfair pressure to be “perfect” (which is absurd) but I guess the silver lining is that I am a stronger person and better scientist for it.

Describe your academic journey:

My mother has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and she influenced me in the best ways possible. Since high school, I always knew that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in a biomedical science field. I liked my sciences classes but was always most excited when [we covered topics] related to human health and finding cures for diseases. As a college student, I recognized that a Ph.D. would allow me to pursue any career path that my heart desired and allow me to participate in high-level biomedical research that could transform the lives of people around the world. I wanted to use my creativity and apply the knowledge I learned to solve some of the world’s greatest global health problems.

Overall, my path has been incredibly non-linear and I am grateful for that in hindsight. I applied to graduate and post-bacc programs my senior year of college and was denied admission to all of them. Fortunately, I secured a position  as a research technician for two years in a biophysical chemistry lab studying X-ray crystal structures of antibiotic drug targets in E. coli at the Georgia Institute of Technology (my alma mater). During the next application cycle, I was admitted to the Bridge-to-Doctorate M.S. program in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan. This was a very special program as it was fully-funded and provided a living stipend which was essential for me as I could not afford to take out additional educational loans. For my master’s, I investigated transcriptional regulation of antibiotic resistant biofilms. I reapplied to Ph.D. programs a third time and was finally admitted to my Ph.D. program in Pharmacology! I also won a Fulbright Research Grant and a Belgian American Educational Foundation grant to complete a research project on understanding antibiotic resistant E. coli. Thus, I deferred my admission to my Ph.D. program to work in Brussels, Belgium, for a year and then matriculated into my Ph.D. program in the Fall of 2018. The best part is, the lab I ended up joining was a new lab and I am my advisor’s first student. While there were a lot of tears and disappointment as I took unplanned detours, it all worked out for the best! Had I started my program any earlier my current lab would not exist and I may not have taken the opportunity to live one of my best years abroad!

Who are your mentors/sources of inspiration? 

My mother. She raised me and my sister as a single parent, and immigrated to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at Georgia Tech ~20 years after the institution desegregated. She is my muse.

I also admire my women research mentors Dr. Raquel Liberman, Dr. Carole Parent, and Dr. Lori Isom. They are brilliant, fierce, and stylish women, all of the things I aspire to be. Not only do I want to have an expert command of the work I do, I want to look just as good doing it!

How do you deal with imposter syndrome? 

I name it and then speak to my accomplishments and the facts about my success. When I received my offer to intern at Merck, for example, I immediately thought “What if I get there and do not perform the way I hope? What if they expect too much of me? Is my training really going to translate into the real world?” The way I combatted that self-doubt was to acknowledge that I was hired after a rigorous screening process, and that my resume—which consists of 100% facts—is what got me in the door. They hired me based on my truths, and everything on my resume reflects who I am and what I am capable of; therefore, I have nothing to worry about. 

When imposter syndrome crept up when I was taking challenging courses or worried about whether I could keep performing well, I made sure to talk to mentors (advisor, professors, grad program coordinators, etc.). They always have a great way of putting things into perspective and giving much needed pep talks.

What volunteer/outreach efforts are you passionate about? Are you helping to support/promote women, underrepresented minorities, or other groups in STEM fields?

Yes, yes, and yes! I have held several leadership and outreach roles focused on diversifying STEM fields, building community amongst historically excluded groups on campus, and helping expand access to international exchange programs for Black and Native scholars.

During my Fulbright, I founded Fulbright Noir, which is a platform committed to increasing representation of Black students in the Fulbright Program. Through Fulbright Noir, I learned of the hardships and racism that many Black Fulbright scholars faced and the need to build inclusive spaces abroad. Consequently, I wrote a proposal for and organized the first two-day Fulbright Noir conference in Belgium with 20 Black Fulbright scholars across Europe. I helped secure $11,000 in funding to cover all expenses for participants and led programming that provided a safe space to strategize ways to improve their experience. Fulbright Noir is the first Fulbright affinity group and inspired the creation of other affinity groups that serve Latinx, LGBTQIA+, Muslim, and other underrepresented groups in the program.  I currently serve as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, a highly competitive position awarded to a select group of Fulbright Alumni, where I help recruit people who belong to historically excluded groups to apply for opportunities with Fulbright.

At the University of Michigan, I served as the President of the African Graduate Students Association.  [When I began,] the organization had $10.00 in their account and had been inactive for two years.  I revamped the organization by securing over $5,000.00 in funding and planned networking events for visiting research faculty from Africa, taught afrobeats dance classes for physical and emotional wellness, and organized social and professional events to bring students together from various disciplines who would normally not cross paths.

[Other roles I have held include] co-President of FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math Engineering in the Sciences), executive board member for the African Studies Center (ASC), and a Rackham Professional Development Leader.  Every extracurricular organization I have participated in has always had some connection with promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Whatever space I am in, it is important to me that I promote a culture and atmosphere that is welcoming and supportive to people of all backgrounds. 

Edited by CED and MRB

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