Nuvala Fomban grew up in the African country of Cameroon where infectious diseases and cancer affect a disproportionate amount of the population. Today he is a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying bioengineering at the UW with a goal of improving how these diseases, especially cancer, are diagnosed and monitored.
In recognition of his work so far, Fomban was awarded a 2012 National Institute of Health-funded pre-doctoral fellowship in September. The Nanotechnology and Physical Sciences Training Program in Cancer Research is administered through the UW Institute of Advanced Materials and Technology. It provides tuition and salary benefits, as well as opportunities to collaborate with peers and receive mentoring from leading experts as Fomban continues his research and develops his thesis.
Fomban works with UW bioengineering professor Patrick Stayton’s group that develops medical technologies for therapeutics and diagnostics in both developed and developing worlds. He is looking at how nanotechnology and the molecules he has developed can improve the way infectious diseases such as HIV and Malaria are currently diagnosed and monitored, and how similar methods can improve the same for cancer. He has been collaborating with the Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH) to develop portable testing devices for HIV.
“I’m really excited for Nuvala to get this fellowship,” said Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, UW Vice President for Minority Affairs and Vice Provost for Diversity who also serves as Fomban’s mentor. “His work is really going to make a difference in developing countries so I’m pretty excited about what he is doing.”
Fomban’s research is largely inspired by his experience growing up in Cameroon. Seeing his classmates and even his own father, who passed away in 2006, die from outbreaks and diseases that didn’t quite affect other populations in the same way made him wonder if more could be done.
He pursued a degree in biochemistry at the University of Yaounde 1 in Cameroon where he was first exposed to the lab and the idea that technology could make a difference. Following graduation in 2002, he received a scholarship to further his education and decided to make the big move to the United States.
He later enrolled at the University of South Florida (USF) in 2005. At USF, Fomban’s mentors encouraged him to pursue bioengineering, which led to him earning a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2007. He was offered a Ph.D. admission and several scholarships at USF, but decided to make another move and enter the UW’s bioengineering Ph.D. program.
Upon arriving at the UW, Fomban met Lange who is also the project director for the UW Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), a program aimed to increase the recruitment, retention and graduation rates of underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. At Fomban’s urging, Lange became his mentor and turned into a strong advocate for his career.
“The thing that really led me to continue to spend time with him is that he is so enthusiastic about his science and the power of what it can do in the world,” Lange said. “And I just really want to encourage him as he continues to do his work.”
Fomban’s introduction to Lange led to him becoming a graduate mentor for LSAMP. In this role, he leads workshops at retreats and conferences on topics such as applying to graduate school, personal goal setting, motivation, networking and communication.
“I always try to support the students and I’m really excited to see how far LSAMP has grown,” Fomban said. “It’s been a very rewarding opportunity.”
In addition to his work with LSAMP, Fomban is a member of the College of Engineering’s PEER (Promoting Equity in Engineering Relationships) Leaders program. PEER Leaders engage with faculty, staff and students through presentations and share what they learn about diversity in science and engineering.
“It has really helped me think a little bit different from how society has been operating,” he said. “There are some key examples of how sexist it’s been and why some people succeed more than others. You can’t always stick to the stereotypes that exist in order to move forward.”
Fomban was also a senator for the UW Graduate and Professional Students Senate and served on the Graduate School Review Panel in 2010. He has been a graduate mentor for OMA&D’s Health Sciences Center Minority Students Program, and is a member of the UW Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and the National Society of Black Engineers.
Fomban recently gave the keynote address at MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) Health and Science Day at Seattle Central Community College and has created an organization called the “S.T.E.M., Education & Swagger Network” to provide recommendations and strategies for the next generation of STEM scholars.
“One thing that is unique about him is that he continues to give back to the students who are coming behind him,” Lange said. “I think he’s served as a role model for them just in terms of being an African American male who has made it through undergraduate and now is doing graduate research with one of the premier scholars (Pat Stayton) in the world. He’s showing them it’s possible to do that and continue to give back.”
After he receives his Ph.D., Fomban is interested in working for a company such as BD Diagnostics or GE Healthcare where he will be able to produce devices similar to what he is currently working on and “sell them to people who need them most.”
His dreams don’t end there.
“Long-term, maybe I’ll be able to lead a global health organization someday and make some more impact,” he said. “A lot has been done by so many foundations, but the little you can do especially in areas where they don’t have the resources and the environment doesn’t allow them to even have those kinds of resources, will help. I think with time, things will change, but everyone has to contribute a little bit.”
Acknowledgments: Fomban would like to thank all the current and past professional and scientific mentors he has been fortunate to work with around the globe. Special thanks to his scientific advisors, colleagues and lab mates from The Biotechnology Center at the University of Yaoundé 1, The Biomaterial and Biosensors Laboratory at USF and The Stayton Laboratory (UW) for their various contributions throughout his scientific career to date.