Denis Odipo Okumu
Chem. 457, Seminar
Instructor: Dr. Delphia Harris
My desire to pursue a course in health sciences, and ultimately engage in research and development of pharmaceuticals, dates back to my pre-teenage years. This was a time when, in the advent of disease, the only remedies available to the poor members of the community were herbs. This has been a long-standing trend in sub-Sahara Africa, a region that earns itself the bogus distinction of being home to most of the world’s deadliest diseases. Lack of state-sponsored healthcare programs, seen in more affluent states of the West, and near absolute ignorance in disease management, are two most important contributors to this sorry state of affairs.
My gravitation toward sciences, therefore, started in earnest when, as a high school student, I was enrolled in a class reserved for those with high academic standards and aptitude for sciences. Upon graduation with distinctions in all subjects, I proceeded for the Kenya Advanced Level of Education, then a two-year program that prepared students for eventual college education. By this time, I had strongly set my mind on pursuing a course in the healthcare profession. Hence, for those two years I narrowed my subject concentration to three: Mathematics, Chemistry, and Biology. As always, Chemistry stood out conspicuously as my favorite subject, always eliciting the highest test scores. At the end of this program I was admitted into the Kenya Medical Training College, Nairobi, for a course in Pharmacy. Due to my good academic record I was offered several internship positions during my second through final college years. One year to graduation, I was actually able to shadow a pharmacist and was consequently offered a permanent part-time position as an assistant pharmacist in one of the retail pharmacies.
I graduated with a diploma in Pharmacy from the Kenya Medical Training College in September 1995. At the graduation ceremony, I was presented with an award for being the best academic and field practice student from the Department of Pharmacy. On graduation, I was readily absorbed by the Ministry of Health, a government department responsible for the management of health institutions in the country. I worked as a coordinator of operations for the various satellite health centres in one of the districts. While in this position, I organized drug awareness campaigns to educate people on proper drug use and on the dangers posed by narcotic analgesics (or drugs of abuse). I did, at the same time, provide technical support to the health personnel responsible for carrying out vaccinations against diseases like rubella, mumps, diphtheria, and others. I had a very short stint here, approximately four months, before moving over to the Kenya Medical Research Institute (K.E.M.R.I.) as deputy Pharmacist-in-Charge of the institute pharmacy. Here, I was regularly co-opted into a number of medical research teams in the Department of Clinical Research, one of the many centres in the institute. The fact that K.E.M.R.I. is the only research facility of its kind in the region resulted in diverse patients from across the continent presenting with different health conditions requiring unique management procedures. Working alongside biomedical scientists (for example, immunologists, epidemiologists, molecular biologists), clinicians, and research pharmacists, I was able to learn the life-cycles of some of the parasites involved in the transmission of some tropical diseases and tried to relate these to the infection patterns observed in host organisms, humans. For non-parasitic diseases like ulcers and cancers, the predisposing factors, aetiologies, and pathophysiologies became more apparent to me in the course of these investigations. This knowledge was important to me in appreciating the diverse management techniques instituted for some of these diseases. Diseases researched at this institute are mainly endemic to the tropics. They include, but are not limited to, schistosomiasis, malaria, leishmaniasis, tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis, and the dreaded acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (A.I.D.S.). My main responsibility, otherwise, was to stock and professionally detail to the patients the various research drugs. After an established duration of time, other medical personnel involved in these programs, and I would assay blood samples from these patients to establish the therapeutic and toxicity profiles of these drugs. In the case of A.I.D.S. a double-blind study was conducted and assays performed to determine the target cell counts. After K.E.M.R.I. hours, I also worked as a part-time shift leader for a local health maintenance organization, Africa Air Rescue Health Services (K) limited.
In pursuit of further education, I left my home country in March 2000 for the United States of America. I was enrolled in a chemistry course at The University of Mississippi, Oxford, for the summer of 2000. I left Oxford to attend LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee for the fall semester, majoring in chemistry. My collegiate experiences in the United States have proven beneficial, as I have learned many new things that have enhanced my interest in science while providing me with a solid foundation upon which I intend to build my career. At The University of Mississippi, for example, I had the wonderful opportunity of working as an intern in the Summer Research Institute for Undergraduates (SRIU), a research program funded by The Alliance for Graduate Education in Mississippi (A.G.E.M.). My research was in the Department of Chemistry. Alongside graduate students and a chemistry professor, I explored the possibility of obtaining chromatographic-like separations in chromatographic systems without stationary phases, with dense-phase carbon dioxide as the mobile phase. During the short duration of the program, I established a network of contacts, including members of the faculty and staff and colleagues. The program not only provided hands-on research experience, it also provided each student with the chance to develop leadership skills and learn how to work in a group as well as independently. After completing the program, I received the Leadership Award and the Academic Achievement Award for my participation and accomplishments.
Since the beginning of fall 2001, I have been on internship with the Community Development Corporation (C.D.C.) in Memphis, Tennessee. This is a welfare concern entrusted with improving living conditions in poor neighborhoods. My school happens to be located in Soulsville, one of the areas covered by this organization. I am responsible for the analysis of Lead content in paint chips and dust from houses in this neighborhood. My results are forwarded to the C.D.C. management to determine whether or not the experimental values conform to the requirements for Lead content in paints set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The above experiences have prepared me quite a bit for the rigorous world of scientific research. As a further step, I plan to get involved in more research experience this summer. Ultimately, I intend to graduate from LeMoyne-Owen College with the highest possible grades and proceed to pharmacy school for a doctorate program. I will then obtain a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry so that I may effectively participate in research and development of quality pharmaceutical products.