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Deborah Opeyemi Ayeni
Young African Scholar

NATIONALITY: Nigerian
EDUCATION: Master of Philosophy | Yale University

My participation in the 2010 Summer Undergraduate Internship Program at the University of Pennsylvania served as a bridge between the painful childhood experience of losing my grandmother to breast cancer and my dream of pursuing a career in biomedical research. I spent the first 18 years of my education in Nigeria. During those years, I was groomed towards becoming a medical doctor and knew very little about biomedical research. However, guidance from mentors during the internship and experience in other research laboratories helped me better understand the important contribution of basic research to the field of medicine. This further strengthened my resolve to pursue a career in biomedical research. I am currently a PhD candidate in Experimental Pathology, with a focus on cancer research at the Yale School of Medicine.
At Yale, my research involves the rapidly emerging field of tumor immunology.

Specifically, I am part of a research team working on a paradigm shift wherein the immune system of a cancer patient will be trained to kill tumor cells as efficiently as it would kill, for example, an influenza virus. This is a novel approach to fight cancer because it tackles the two main conundrums of cancer therapy. The first is the toxicity and collateral damage that happens to a patient’s healthy cells as a result of chemotherapy treatment. The second is the issue of relapse commonly observed in cancer patients following an appreciable response to therapy. I am very excited about this new approach to cancer therapy because patients that do respond have durable, long-lasting response. My PhD work is focused on identifying patients that are likely to respond and understand why some tumors may be intrinsically resistant to this new class of therapies.

I have received several awards including the prestigious 2011 City University of New York (CUNY) Salk scholarship, which recognizes students that are likely to make a significant contribution to the field of medicine. In 2012, I won a $120,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that supported 3 years of my research. In 2015, I was awarded a 2-year pre-doctoral fellowship from the National Cancer Institute, which will support the last phase of my studies. I have also received several scholarships at Yale including the Gruber and Annie Le Fellowships. I authored two peer-reviewed scientific publications from my research as an undergraduate student at the City College of New York (CCNY) and as a graduate student at Yale.

My PhD training has demonstrated the importance of integrating the practice of clinical medicine with biomedical research; they go hand in hand and you cannot do one without the other. For instance, discoveries from research in our lab have led to clinical trials investigating novel drugs that can delay relapse in cancer patients. This is the type of collaborative environment that I would love to see in Nigeria.

I am passionate about affecting a growth in basic and biomedical research as well as an improved collaboration between scientists and clinicians in Nigeria. I am committed to being a vigorous and thought-stimulating mentor and educator. I have a goal of providing young students from and within Africa with the confidence, craft and framework to formulate thought-provoking questions and in the process develop the next generation of scientists equipped with the intellectual support they need to be successful.  While pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in New York, I pioneered one-on-one weekend tutoring sessions for middle and high school students at my church, where I prepared students for the mathematics and science regents examination. I ensured the sustainability of my efforts in this area by mentoring the next generation of tutors before leaving New York for graduate studies in New Haven. I remain committed to community service in New Haven by volunteering with the non-profit organization New Haven Reads, which fosters reading and learning in children within the community who may not have access to needed educational resources. For two consecutive years since 2014, I have worked with a team from the telecommunication company, MTN Nigeria and other non-governmental organizations to mentor secondary school students in Nigeria on career, leadership and responsible citizenship via teleconferences. In addition to this, I am currently working with a non-profit organization in Nigeria to provide primary school children with book bags, and stationery as well as equip local libraries with books generously donated by New Haven Reads.

Furthermore, I envision improvement in the state of biomedical research in Nigeria through collaborations between research institutions in the US and Nigeria. This project is still at its nascent phase but I have assembled a team of physicians and scientists at Yale and currently working on identifying the right partnerships in Nigeria. Our goal is to foster the exchange of ideas and resources through an internship program wherein interns are selected from a pool of young faculty members, residents or medical students from Universities across Nigeria.

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