Couple finds chemistry in love, science

12-22-2015

Chem couple

Kasiemobi Onyejekwe (left) and Chris Pulliam pose in the lab of Chemistry Prof. Graham Cooks, where Pulliam researches as a graduate students. Onyejekwe researched there for a semester during her undergraduate studies.


Kasiemobi Onyejekwe and Chris Pulliam have chemistry as newlyweds. They have Chemistry as a medical student and graduate student, respectively, as well.

Both Onyejekwe and Pulliam received their undergraduate degrees from the Department of Chemistry in 2012. Onyejekwe moved on to Indiana University Medical School’s West Lafayette campus – located in Purdue’s Lyles-Porter Hall. Pulliam stayed in Wetherill Laboratory in Prof. Graham Cooks’ storied lab where he is a senior graduate student. Pulliam is working on the improvement of instrumentation and scope of analysis of Cooks’ portable mass spectrometer design, which takes an instrument that’s more than 500 pounds and shrinks it down to a manageable 20 pounds in order to easily go to locations outside of the lab to get measurements. Onyejekwe will finish med school in May.

How did these young, intelligent students find each other? How did they find love? It was the rigors of the Purdue Chemistry program that played cupid.

Sure, they were in the same classes.

“He always sat in the front and I always sat in the back,” Onyejekwe laughed.

Chem couple 2010
Kasiemobi Onyejekwe and Chris Pulliam in 2010 outside the College of Science Diversity Office.

But it wasn’t until a fellow chemistry major, Raina Baldwin, needed help in calculus and organic chemistry that Onyejekwe and Pulliam really connected during their sophomore year. The tutors and future spouses’ tutoring times overlapped and a spark was created. The three students became close but it wasn’t long when the studious trio became a pair.

The Science of meeting cute

Of course, there was a mutual attraction. Pulliam enjoyed Onyejekwe’s sense of humor. However, intelligence, work ethic and challenging each other helped draw Onyejekwe and Pulliam close.

“Since we had three or four classes together a semester, we really pushed each other,” Pulliam explained. “When you study chemistry, you have to be up late. You have to prepare for tests. It was nice to have someone in those classes who understood.”

Onyejekwe concurred.

“I think it was just nice to have someone just as determined to be successful as you are. We really challenged each other. We would even challenge each other’s ideas while we were studying together.  He wouldn’t always just agree with me. Sometimes he would just disagree with me to make sure I was confident in my answer.”

They got to know each other while racking up stellar grades.

Pulliam: “A’s in Physical Chemistry. We both got A’s in Biochem. We got A’s in Inorganic”

Onyejekwe : “I got an A in analytical.”

“I got a B+,” Pulliam sighed with a smile. “That’s so disappointing because I’m an Analytical student now.”

At the same time, they were both getting A’s in the relationship department.

Spectacular spectrometry

Despite the B+, Pulliam’s excellent undergrad helped pave the way for a successful graduate career. He is on the home stretch, expecting to finish in Fall 2016 or Spring 2017.

Cooks noted that Pulliam’s research and lab work has been strong. The student has helped close the gap between the “mini,” portable mass spectrometers and the “big, bench top boys.

“Chris has – especially recently – made these instruments sing,” Cooks stated.

Pulliam recently published a paper, “Mass Spectrometry in the Home and Garden,” with summarized the everyday chemical analysis that is now possible when using small mass spectrometers.

Besides working on machines, Pulliam’s pure chemistry skills are valued in Cooks’ lab. He has helped exploit the acceleration in rates of chemical reactions in microdroplets.

“In this work he uses mass spectrometry as a preparative method, not just as an analytical technique,” Cooks explained.

Science Diversity importance

Onyejekwe said her experience in the Science Diversity Office helped her thrive during her undergraduate years. The office’s director, Zenephia Evans, became a mentor for the young student. The office became a go-to hang out.

“I practically lived there,” Onyejekwe said. “I would just go there and visit. (Evans) was probably a large reason why I came to Purdue. Having her support really helped me transition from high school to undergrad. Initially, you don’t really know how to study properly. She was there when we needed help or needed connections to study groups.”

Among Onyejekwe’s accomplishments were a four-year hitch in Women In Science Programs (WISP) and some years as a counselor for the STEM Academic Boot Camp for high school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“During her involvement in MSP (Multicultural Science Programs) and WISP programs,” Evans recalled, “I saw her accept challenging opportunities, embrace her full potential and watched her strive to excel in academics, leadership and involvement.”

Evans was and still is impressed and close with the couple. The bond goes beyond Science. There was the time Evans cared for Pulliam after an illness sent him to the emergency room. Evans helped Onyejekwe navigate a visit to Texas by putting the student in touch with an alumnus.

Evans was invited to both weddings but she could only make the Indianapolis nuptials. She is thrilled to have been able to see Pulliam and Onyejekwe grow over the last several years.

“I am elated that I had the chance to watch them form the strong covalent bond that anchors their relationship and I look forward to the chemistry in their future.”

Hitched and hitched again

Born in the Chicago suburbs to Nigerian parents, Onyejekwe fulfilled her family’s wishes and first got married in a small village called Oraifite in Nigeria.

During the 2015 fall break, the couple flew to Lagos, Nigeria, and then spent the next two days on a charter bus to Onyejekwe’s father’s remote village. There, preparations for a traditional Nigerian wedding were already underway.

It was the first time in Nigeria for Pulliam, who was born in Norwood, Massachusetts, but grew up in Indianapolis.

“You can’t really prepare for that kind of trip,” Pulliam recalled. “The culture is very different as soon as you get off the plane.”

A traditional Nigerian wedding is full of pageantry and unique customs. Onyejekwe was decked out in a bright, colorful, glittering gown and large head tie. Pulliam got a crash course in Nigerian traditions, which he aced, of course, by presenting Onyejekwe’s father with gifts and a dowry. Then Pulliam had to hide at the celebration so Onyejekwe could “find” her husband. The single men tried to playfully sway Onyejekwe’s decision, but in the end, the future general surgeon found her man, sipped some palm wine, said some vows and became wed.

Due to the remoteness of her father’s village, the couple could only spend one day in Oraifite before beginning the trek back to West Lafayette.

They had another ceremony with Pulliam’s family in attendance on Oct. 24 in Indianapolis’ Light of the World church.

A power couple with a future in healthcare

The College of Science has prepared many students for med school. Most of those are products from the Department of Biological Sciences. Onyejekwe proves that Chemistry students can succeed in the medical field, too.

“It’s definitely been a challenge because I hadn’t had that exposure to biology,” Onyejekwe explained. “The thought process in biology is different than chemistry. I found it easier to think critically but more difficult to just memorize without knowing the path of physiology behind the process.”

Pulliam has a passion for the medical field as well. It’s just with an analytical chemistry lens. Pulliam’s recent theoretical project looks at quicker and better detection of melanoma and other skin cancers.

“It was combining my love for being in the lab with my interest in medicine as well,” he said.

And after all these years, Pulliam and Onyejekwe are still studying together. Science still bonds them as well as the drive to succeed in their fields.

“We’re not limited to just discussing chemistry when it comes to helping one another,” Pulliam said. “We both studied for her medical school exams. … Then I’ll do practice presentations in front of her and she would give me critical feedback. One of the benefits of her not being as into chemistry anymore, she can tell me when things don’t make sense to a general audience.”

And was Baldwin, the tutee that brought them together, invited to the wedding in Indianapolis?

“Definitely,” answered Pulliam and Onyejekwe, with smiles that lit up the Wetherill basement.

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