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Chioma M. Okeoma, Ph.D., Has Risen Above Adversity to Excel in Her Field

As An Immigrant Woman In Science, Dr. Okeoma Had To Face Many Challenges While Advancing In Her Career

August 08, 2022
Chioma Okeoma, Ph.D.
Chioma Okeoma, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology

Dr. Okeoma has amassed various accolades throughout her career for her innovative research, but as she emerged as a prominent researcher, she encountered several challenges along the way. While earning her bachelor’s degree at the Federal University of Technology Owerri in Nigeria, Dr. Okeoma set a goal to help her country by researching malaria to help eradicate the disease that was so prevalent there. However, Dr. Okeoma decided to leave Nigeria, saying government corruption and neglect for education and research weakened her confidence that she would be able to achieve her goal.

In a dramatic change of environment, Dr. Okeoma joined Massey University in New Zealand, after receiving a scholarship to earn her Ph.D. While her time at Massey University was going well, she struggled with being in a foreign country, but she and her husband met other couples from Nigeria and other parts of Africa and that helped settle her and her family. “[Moving to New Zealand from Nigeria] was like night and day,” Dr. Okeoma said. “But after overcoming the shock, life was good.”

Moving to the United States proved to be another adjustment for Dr. Okeoma and her family, after she secured a post-doctoral fellowship at the University at Buffalo. Dr. Okeoma immediately felt the impact of healthcare costs and maternity leave policies, as she was six months pregnant when she started the fellowship. “It is very difficult being a woman in science. Having two children during my doctoral education and another two during my postdoctoral fellowship, meant that I had tremendous challenges to overcome to prove that childbearing is not a barrier to a successful career in science. I had to be extremely focused and determined,” Dr. Okeoma said.

Dr. Okeoma enjoyed a better balance when she joined the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN) where she focused on virology research and won the Andy Kaplan Prize, a prestigious award given to post-doctoral fellows who are focusing on retrovirology.

The award helped her when she set her sights on attaining a faculty appointment, which she said her mentors at UPENN encouraged her to do. After several interviews with different institutions, Dr. Okeoma joined the University of Iowa in 2010 as an assistant professor and later associate professor of microbiology and immunology. In 2016, she became the recipient of the Iowa Women of Innovation Award by the Technology Association of Iowa. However, a series of racially discriminatory experiences by herself, her husband, and their children compelled the family to consider a move. “My kids would come home from school and talk about hearing ‘go back to where you came from.’ It was the last straw. Sometimes you hear these stories and you do not believe them until they happen to you.”

It would not be long before Dr. Okeoma and her family would be on the move again. This time, joining Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine as an associate professor of pharmacology in the department of Pharmacological Sciences in 2017. Now with NYMC as professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, she is continuing to embrace her love for research. As an NIH funded researcher, her main focus is developing her research programs, as well as her new role as the vice chair of research. Both, she said, provide a different level of gratification. “Like I always say, it’s about making a positive change—this is my platform to help humanity,” she said. “One of the most rewarding things is when you mentor someone who ends up pursuing a profession that he/she enjoys.”

Dr. Okeoma is undoubtedly an invaluable mentor, as her experiences as not only a researcher and professor, but a woman in science and an immigrant, will provide unique perspectives to students who seek her counsel.

Enduring those experiences was not always easy, but Dr. Okeoma takes great pride in having pushed through the adversity. “I always tell immigrants, ‘You must work ten times harder than locals,’” Dr. Okeoma said. “I am someone from Nigeria, from institutions that are not well-funded or well-equipped, and learned everything from the scratch. Rising from such a humble beginning and to be in a position to positively contribute to humanity, makes me very proud.”