University of Washington juniors Chinonso Opara and Sarra Tekola are among an elite group of students. This spring they received the UNCF/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship Award, presented annually to around 15 undergraduates from across the country.
The honor includes up to a $25,000 scholarship for the 2013-14 academic year, as well as eligibility to be selected to participate in a Merck Summer Research Internship Program. The award is intended to help African American undergraduate students who are interested in science further their education and pursuit of science and engineering careers. It is presented by the United Negro College Fund and the Merck Company Foundation.
“I’m very humbled by it,” Opara said. “To have such a rigorous selection committee select you from several people that applied encourages me to strive for my goals.”
Tekola echoed his sentiment. “I’m very honored,” she said. “I definitely see it for the privilege it is, and I want to honor them in that and strive for excellence.”
Opara and Tekola will attend the UNCF/Merck Fellows Day event, June 16-17, in Pennsylvania or New Jersey where they will be formally recognized for their achievements.
Both students participate in OMA&D programs that support students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, including the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). Opara is also involved in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) and the McNair Post-baccalaureate Program, where he benefited from the mentorship of director Teri Ward and associate director Gene Kim, respectively. Tekola, a transfer student who is in her third quarter at UW, also affiliates with TRiO Student Support Services.
While both credit these programs for encouraging their scientific endeavors, each come from different backgrounds and are interested in different fields of study.
Opara moved to the United States from Nigeria at the age of six. His father, James, is a physician and his mother, Mercy, is a nurse. They brought the family that includes four children to the U.S. for greater economic opportunities.
“We have long since gained American citizenship and my parents fulfilled the credentials necessary to continue their medical practice as U.S. residents,” he said. “They have been practicing here for several years. My parents are very helpful and are my biggest role models.”
From a young age, Opara has had a profound interest in science. Originally, he wanted to study biology in college. But after taking a high school chemistry class, he liked them both so he thought, why not combine the two?
“Ever since then, I’ve been interested in pursuing biochemistry,” he said.
After graduating from Walla Walla Valley Academy, Opara gained his first lab experience that summer under Dr. David Lindsey in the Department of Biology at Walla Walla University, where he aided their work on elucidating the pathway of the ubiquitin protease upbA. Since coming to the UW, he has continued his research activities.
In the bioengineering lab of Dr. Patrick Stayton, Opara worked on a project aimed at enhancing antitumor immune response, where he focused on characterizing the level of gene knockdown using smart polymers as delivery vehicles for small interfering RNA. He also participated in the UW Amgen Scholars Program last summer. As an Amgen Scholar, Opara worked in the medicinal chemistry lab of Dr. William Atkins to create a new method for measuring the concentration of quantum dots in solution, which are currently being developed as biomedical devices, using surface plasmon resonance and analytical ultracentrifugation.
Opara is currently working in collaboration with the Stayton and Atkins labs as he aims to develop polymer-nanodisc conjugates to study how the pH-responsive polymers developed in the Stayton lab interact with lipid membranes.
Opara also participated in the Yale School of Medicine Summer Medical and Dental Education Program after his freshman year. In his spare time, he volunteers for the Undergraduate Research Program as an undergraduate research leader, tutors chemistry for the UW Athletic Department and is a volunteer pianist at a local nursing home.
After graduating from the UW, Opara wants to go on to medical school and become a physician.
“I want to combine the science with working with patients on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I would like to do family practice.”
Tekola’s interest in environmental science began when she was home-schooled at a young age.
“It was a lot of hands-on learning,” she said. “I was always attracted to wetlands and soil, and I would climb the fence to get in the delineation ponds and try to identify organisms from my field books. That was my class because I could learn what I wanted to.”
When she started public school in seventh grade, she admits she was distracted by “going down some wrong roads” and “forgot about her passions.” At a low spot in her life, it was a chance meeting with a stranger that reignited her dreams.
“I found this man in the stream that I used to hang out in,” she recalled. “I would watch him and ask him what he was doing. He said he was building a blueprint for a beaver fence. I said, ‘that’s cool. Can I help you?’”
The man turned out to be a senior ecologist with the Washington State Department of Ecology and Tekola volunteered with him a few times. He got her a job working for the Washington Conservation Corps during her senior year of high school while she was taking night classes.
“It was just really amazing to see the difference we could make in a few weeks, and how many trees we could plant, how much blackberry we could remove, and the difference as one person we could make,” Tekola said. “I definitely think I regained my purpose.”
Tekola participated in the Running Start program through Green River Community College where she completed her associate’s degree. She transferred to the UW last fall.
Tekola is currently working on an undergraduate research project through professor Tim Essington’s Aquatic and Fisheries lab. The project examines how the hypoxic conditions in the Hood Canal are affecting the behavior of zooplankton, a food source for fish. She hopes to help gather some of the samples in the Hood Canal this summer.
In addition to her work in the lab, Tekola is busy with several other activities. She works for the Friends of the Cedar River and the Salmon Naturalist Program. She also volunteers as a lab assistant for ocean certification for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Tekola plans to move on to complete a master’s degree and a Ph.D. She would like to become a scientist and an activist, while remaining involved in her community. Ultimately she wants to find solutions to stop climate change.
“Whether I study oceans, or whether I study the earth, or whether I plant trees or teach people about the environment, it’s all different solutions for climate change,” she said.
For more information on the UNCF/Merck Science Initiative awards, visit http://umsi.uncf.org.