Bio graduate student balances passions for science, song

11-05-2013

Onyx Uzomah

From Nigeria to Los Angeles to Purdue University.

Onyx Uzomah has traveled more than 13,000 miles for her biology education. Along with her suitcases, her affinity for science and song has been a constant companion during her journeys.

Growing up singing in church choirs in her native Long Beach, Calif., and her several years in southeastern Nigeria, Uzomah, a Biological Sciences graduate student, developed her love for science in high school.

Biology has always been her key interest but she discovered a broad field when delving into her undergraduate work – first in animal and environmental biology focusing on physiology at Imo State University in Owerri, Nigeria, and finishing up at California State University – Dominguez Hills, where she participated in research through the NIH-funded MBRS-RISE program and worked at the Harbor-UCLA research facility; she worked with a research group that focused on the effects of  intrauterine growth restriction on rat pups when the rat dams were either starved or dehydrated during the pregnancy, trying to answer questions about the genetic and pre-programming possibility of obesity and hypertension. That outside-of-class experience pushed her to do summer research in Argentina, which also helped prep her for graduate school at Purdue.

“Being involved in that type of work, it gave me the opportunity to not only learn about the academic world but to also be able to do research outside of campus,” Uzomah recalled. “It was a mega lab. It was three labs under one doctor with lots of other medical doctors and fellows, research scientists, and graduate students all working on one big hypothetical question.

“That was really great – learning about this world out there and learning about industry and all of these opportunities.”

The research in Los Angeles inspired her to pursue grad school. After several months of reaching out to schools, she met Purdue representatives at a National SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) conference. The West Lafayette, Ind., institution was also recommended to her by a professor.

At Purdue, she found a warm reception and even more interests. She quickly saw that to make it as a biologist, a plethora of skills are needed. The field is becoming more quantitative and Uzomah realized that as quickly as she got used to the colder Indiana weather.

“I rotated through four different labs that had very different types of research so I used very different types of equipment and techniques,” Uzomah admitted. “I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ ”

Uzomah works under Dr. Nancy Pelaez, associate professor of Biological Sciences whose research groups include education, physiology, ecology and evolutionary biology.

“From the first day, I felt like we connected very well,” Uzomah said of Pelaez. “She’s really about mentoring, which is what I love to do. We have undergrads in our lab that are what I like to call ‘baby graduate students’ because they can work on their own personal projects, think it through, and be creative and be analytical before they even get to grad school. And I love working with them on that.”

“I’ve learned a lot – not just about science and research – but about professional development, working with people and working outside of the box.”

Pelaez was impressed with Uzomah’s “international experience” upon arrival. Since then, Pelaez has watched her student build an impressive career at Purdue in the classroom and lab.

“Since coming here, she has been highly qualified and gifted in many different areas,” Pelaez said. “ She is a real leader in music and science, and she has been a super TA, award-winning and elected more than once.”

Recently, Uzomah received recognition for her leadership in a first-year biology class. Uzomah dove into helping students and fellow teacher’s assistants realize the quantitative aspects of the field.

“Everything we do is focused on quantitative,” Pelaez explained. “We can’t just do multiple choice. … We have to know how you go about doing it.

“What does it mean to have knowledge on things we can measure?”

To balance the science and stress from trying to find her preferred career field, Uzomah quickly became a leader with the Heart & Soul choir, an extension of Purdue Musical Organizations. In small ensembles or the full choir, Uzomah was part of numerous concerts in theaters, churches and large auditoriums like Elliott Hall of Music. She was even part of pre-game festivities at an Indiana Pacers game where her and her fellow Heart & Soul singers performed the National Anthem in front of thousands of National Basketball Association fans.

Uzomah’s own research focuses on the myometrial telocytes, a ‘relative’ of the Interstial cells of Cajal (ICC) found in the gastro-intestinal tract, and looks at possible functions for it as it relates to other cells in the uterine muscle and different hormonal levels that occur. She uses retired breeder rats as her model and hopes to show a possible role in the spontaneous contractile activity of the myometrium which would maybe lead to improved techniques for preventing pre-term labor.

Recently, Uzomah has sung the “Star Spangled Banner” solo in front of a Lafayette Brawlin’ Dolls roller derby bout. She continues to make both science and song dual passions.

“When I feel I've hit a roadblock, music is the tractor trailer that clears it out,” Uzomah said. “PMO helped process anxiety: an hour of rehearsal motivated me towards my research and academics.

“Music always centers me. It brings me back to a point where I am certain it will be OK.”

Onyx and students

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