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AMBR SpotLIGHT: Unekwu Yakubu

August 24, 2020
GSBS students April Nguyen, Thomaia Pamplin, and Sreeja Sridharan

The Association of Minority Biomedical Researchers will be featuring interviews with its members as a way to highlight GSBS students and life inside and outside of the lab. This feature will be posted on the group's website and Facebook page. AMBR’s seventh spotlight features an interview with GSBS sixth-year PhD student Unekwu Yakubu.

 It is no surprise to graduate students that academic challenges and steep learning curves are included in the pursuit of a PhD. However, scientists of color have the additional barrier of otherness — the fact or quality of being different — from their peers. STEM fields often lack diversity. According to Data USA, only 39% of biomedical researchers are non-white. Of those, only 4.5% are Black women. In this environment, scientists of color must balance inconsistent expectations placed on them from their institutions and implicit bias. AMBR member Unekwu Yakubu spoke to AMBR about her experience, highlighting events that have strengthened her values and taught her how to stand up for herself in order to own space in this field. Unekwu is a PhD student in the Program in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and her advisor is Kevin Morano, PhD.

Unekwu (left) at the Graduate Student Education Committee Retreat, October 2018, with Ileana Corssi and Ayesha Khan.

Road to the GSBS

Unekwu is a first-generation immigrant of Nigerian origin; her family is originally from the city of Ayangba. She was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and moved to the United States when she was just six-months old. Her family’s journey took them far from original home as her father pursued his graduate education, and subsequent career in toxicology and pharmacology. Meanwhile, her mother became an educator. Unekwu grew up with strong influences that immensely valued both scientific research and education, leading her to pursue graduate school in Houston, a decision that her father had enthusiastically encouraged her to pursue since she was young.

 Photo of Unekwu Yakubu for AMBR Spotlight
Volunteering for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo - March 2019

“I knew my dad wanted me to go to graduate school, but I was always convinced I was going to grow up and go to medical school instead,” she explained.

However, after spending time in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory doing research at The University of Texas at Austin, Unekwu realized she enjoyed research and eventually became a PhD student here at the Graduate School. “My dad was very ecstatic when I told him I got accepted into the PhD program here,” she said.

Fighting the Implicit Biases of Others

Despite the diversity present at the GSBS, science is not always a traditionally diverse field. Although women make up the majority in research, very few hold leadership positions due to the many obstacles faced by women and minorities in science. Unekwu is well aware there are times when she needs to advocate for herself and believe in her merits in order to stay focused and be successful, especially if there are doubters in her community who do not advocate or believe in her capabilities. For this reason, Unekwu drew from her experiences as a cellist, starting at 11 years old in youth orchestra, a space that is generally not associated with Black or African people. Some people in the youth orchestra community would automatically make assumptions about her ability and work ethic simply because of  how she looked, so she learned how to handle these preconceived notions and shape her mindset for success — in orchestra and in science.


Unekwu, age 17, playing cello in the youth orchestra

Despite initially confronting feelings of otherness, Unekwu says she learned not to internalize those perceptions. “You can’t change people’s minds, but can change what kind of example you set for others that come after you,” she said.

She has since brought that same mentality to graduate school where she has learned to advocate for herself as a student and embrace her own merits and contributions despite what others think. This has helped her move past feelings associated with imposter syndrome that many graduate students experience — a feeling that can be especially be heightened with otherness.

Navigating space for herself in settings with predominantly white students like orchestra and graduate school has encouraged Unekwu to aspire to work as a medical science liaison. As a member of AMBR, she sets an excellent example for future scientists of color, and we hope that her story inspires others to pursue their goals of a PhD to make it a more diverse community.




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