As a Chemistry and Biology double major at Barry University, Peter Nwokoye got his first taste of biomedical research as a student assistant analyzing the impact of embryonic alcohol exposure. “My project aimed to understand the mechanism of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and its effects during critical developmental stages,” he says. That initial study, directed by Professor Stephanie Bingham, launched Nwokoye on a journey through the field of biomedical research that has included multiple awards, publications, professional accomplishments, and now the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Established by the Gates Foundation and awarded each year, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship enables promising scholars to attend the master’s or doctoral program of their choice at England’s University of Cambridge. Nwokoye, who hails from Nigeria and graduated from Barry with top honors in 2016, was among the 55 international applicants selected out of a pool of roughly 5,000. (Scholarships were also awarded to 25 U.S. applicants from a group of 700.) He will join the 2021 class of scholars at Cambridge’s renowned King’s College, where he will be pursuing a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Translational Biomedical Research. His goal, he says, is to partner with Cambridge’s leading scientists to explore molecular epidemiology and infectious diseases. “The course will provide me with the tools to apply basic science to clinical practice and to translate fundamental scientific discoveries into new treatments to improve patient outcomes,” he says. “Translational research is sort of a bridge between basic science and clinical research and, as such, is necessarily a multidisciplinary endeavor.”
Nwokoye might not have discovered his deep passion for studying infectious diseases had life not thrown him a curveball. After graduating from Barry, he worked as a chemistry teacher at Miami Springs Senior High, leading his students to third place in a state-wide science competition. By 2018, he had been accepted to Georgetown University School of Medicine. Thinking he was bound for a traditional medical education, Nwokoye returned to his native Nigeria to obtain his student visa. That’s when disappointment struck. “Unfortunately, I had trouble getting a student visa to return to the United States,” he says. “As a result, I relinquished my seat [at Georgetown].” Seeking new ways to forward his education and career, Nwokoye joined the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a one-year service program for all Nigerian graduates. “I was posted to the Nigerian Air Force Hospital (NAF) in Abuja, one of the top military medical facilities in the country,” he says. “I rotated across different labs, including clinical chemistry, hematology, and medical microbiology labs.”
It was during his tenure at the NAF Hospital that Nwokoye began to notice a disturbing pattern. “I encountered several clinical cases of drug-resistant enteric infections, particularly diarrheagenic E. coli,” he says. “I developed an interest in the therapeutic targeting of multidrug-resistant bacterial infections. While in the field with my team for one of our monthly rural health outreaches, I learned that there is currently neither an epidemiologic surveillance system in place to track the spread of drug-resistant bacteria nor a nationwide program against the irrational use of antimicrobials. Over time, these experiences sparked my interest in molecular epidemiology and infectious diseases.”
Through his work at Cambridge, Nwokoye is eager to pioneer new ways to track and combat drug-resistant infections, particularly those that are prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. His desire to make the world a better place through leadership in his field is a quality he shares with his fellow Gates Cambridge Scholars. “I am incredibly honored to join this incoming cohort,” he says. “I will always be aware of and guided by the responsibility and trust that come with this prestigious scholarship and will strive to embody a life of intellectual curiosity and service to others, wherever the vicissitudes of life take me.”
We asked Nwokoye to tell us more about his research plans, his Barry influences, and what most excites him about joining the impressive roster of Gates Cambridge Scholars.
What will your research at Cambridge entail, exactly?
My research will use whole-genome sequencing and other molecular and phylogenetic tools to examine the spatiotemporal evolution of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria, particularly species that are prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. I will be exploring the selection pressures that result in specific clonal phenotypes and how this knowledge can better inform the use of antimicrobials to mitigate resistance. I will work under the supervision of a world-leading infectious disease researcher, Dr. Stephen Baker (Department of Medicine), who has worked extensively in Africa and Asia.
How do you feel that your experience as a student research assistant at Barry helped ignite or inform your interest in medicine and translational biomedical research?
Biomedical research was a key component of my undergraduate academic training at Barry. As I now reflect on my experiences as an undergraduate research assistant, one of the intangible lessons that readily comes to mind is the importance of persistence in the pursuit of answers to complex questions. Research labs often lack the defined chronology and predictability that you find in traditional curricular labs—sometimes, you simply do not know what you will find and are working off of a hypothesis and induction. It is in such an environment that one’s critical-thinking develops.
I will always remain indebted to Dr. Stephanie Bingham and Dr. John Boulos for providing me with the opportunity to work in their respective labs. But for their steady mentorship, I am almost certain that I would not have been competitive for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship nor even had the courage to write a research proposal to work with a world-leading scientist at Cambridge.
What advice would you give to Barry students interested in applying for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship?
In many ways, the core values of Barry University dovetail with the selection criteria and objectives of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, especially the commitment to improve the lives of others and purposeful leadership. As a Barry student, I learned early on that the engagement in praxis aimed at improving the lives of others was not ancillary to, but a necessary component of, my undergraduate education.
I do hope that Barry produces more Gates Cambridge Scholars because the core mission and ethos of the university fit quite well with the selection criteria for Gates. Overall, the application has an introspective element to it, allowing candidates to reflect on and advocate for the causes that animate their academic pursuits. I strongly encourage Barry students to apply.
Other than your personal research objectives, what excites you most about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship?
Beyond the opportunity to study at one of the world’s leading academic institutions as a Gates Cambridge scholar, I am particularly excited to be doing so as a member of King’s College. King’s features scenic Gothic English architectures, as most prominently exemplified by the famous Chapel, making it a huge tourist attraction; people actually pay money to visit the Chapel. King’s is also known for its famous choir. Their rendition of Handel’s Messiah, viewed millions of times on YouTube, was simply heavenly. Also, one of my science heroes, Dr. Frederick Sanger, a double Nobel Laureate in chemistry, was a Fellow of King’s. I hope to draw inspiration from the great many scientists and leaders who have attended this fine institution, and ultimately pursue my research interests with zeal, keeping with the rich tradition of research excellence at Cambridge.
Beginning with the orientation, the scholarship will provide ample opportunities for Gates Scholars to exchange ideas. I am excited to learn from scholars from around the world in an environment free of groupthink and full of original ideas and diverse perspectives aimed at finding solutions to complex problems. I am also excited for the lifelong friendships that I will develop.
Ultimately, in what ways do you want your work to impact people’s lives for the better?
One of the things I hope to achieve in my research at Cambridge is explore ways to use molecular epidemiology to address the paucity of epidemiologic data on multidrug-resistant bacteria in low- and middle-income countries. Long-term, I plan to partner with the incredible scientists at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) to create a comprehensive database of resistance-conferring mutations to help with the data-driven surveillance of tuberculosis. During my physician scientist training, I plan to investigate the pathogenesis of neglected tropical diseases and identify novel clinical biomarkers.