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Episode 7: Breaking Out of the Box
Episode 723rd June 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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Growing up in L.A. with a Trekkie mom, discussing why barriers were meant to be broken, and drawing on data to connect the dots on disease... This week, Howard University alumnus Dr. Brandon Ogbunu takes us on a journey from his humble beginnings to his Fulbright in Kenya, and why he’s not afraid to boldly go where no one has gone before. 

Transcripts

Dr. Brandon Ogbunu

My name is professor Brandon Ogbunu. I'm an assistant professor at Yale University and I'm a geneticist who studies epidemics.

Again, I was that, you know, child of the HIV pandemic, it locally, in the, in the United States. I remember what that was like. I remember what the crack epidemic was like in the United States. These are things I have very vivid memories of, um, growing up in the '90s mostly.

Um, and so, and so, you know, this is a big part of my imagination, but to see the way it looked in another setting, to see how disease manifested in another setting, for all the problems, I never had to deal with the mosquito borne illness.

It's one of the leading causes of death in the world for children under five.

blem. But I think even by the:

So broadly I was exposed to, uh, you know, illness and the way that it kind of ravages communities and the way it shapes economies. And that's the interesting thing about malaria. Uh, not only does it cause a lot of disease, mortality and morbidity, it actually kind of like drains communities because of kind of, uh, the number of daily adjusted, you know, life years lost, work. These, these types of things, that it actually just drains communities, uh, families are affected.

When I think about kind of the long view of what my story is, um, I think it's, you know, I think you could think about it m- multiple different ways. You can kind of paint it with the classical descriptions of, right, you, you know, an African-American growing up in a, right, in a, you know, at best lower middle class, but probably not even setting.

That's an important detail, but by an enormous amount of privilege I have being raised by the woman that I was raised by. So I think mom, I was raised by an African-American w- woman, uh, from Baltimore. And I think I had a lot of an advantage over a lot of other people in my community because she was, I mean, really just an extraordinary person.

She kind of had this view of there's nothing in this world that you can't have.

Importantly, it wasn't just that she pushed me to be academically successful. I actually was not an especially good student. I, I always, school was very easy for me, but I actually didn't really try very hard.

Her thing was more like expand, push the envelope, be original, be a leader, think differently. Right? So for, you know, for example, you know, my mother was interested in science fiction in the '60s (laughs), you know what I'm saying? She was a Trekkie (laughs). Like, and, and that's something... So I had that at home. Right? And, and so seeing that, she was put, putting New York Times science articles on the refrigerator from young. And so my point is, it's like I never, ever, ever felt like there was any setting I didn't belong in. I felt like I was never, ever felt lesser than anyone ever. And I saw her kind of stand up to people and defend herself in these really amazing, I would see her get disrespected by people and her just break them down. And you're seven years old and you see your mother doing that... She’s raising you by herself...

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e by virtue of my, my mother.(:

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My motivation is, I mean, you know, like one of the things that I'm about is, I'm about kind of giving access to people. And part of that is just my politics. And I believe in people having an opportunity, but, you know, part of it is, there's just no question that my mother would have been a better scientist than I would had she had the opportunities that I had, no question. I mean, she taught me algebra (laughs), you know what I'm saying? And so she didn't have to raise three kids by herself. So my point is, I mean, I, I, I have to try to do well. Right? Just kind of add an honor. That's why I don't, I, when, when people talk about what people are capable of and incapable of, it doesn't even make any sense to me. You know, because I, I see this at home and I see, I see how society and, and, and, uh, challenges kind of force people in kind of to be able to do certain things

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You think the difference between me and my mother is talent, and that's just, that's, that's like, that's, that's the silliest thing I've ever heard in my life. And so I try to go through life with that way. I, you know, um,

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Like life presents challenges to people. They were people more talented than me in my community, they just didn't have my mother (laughs).

At Howard University where I went to college, there was a kinda growing interest in students applying to kind of prestigious scholarships and fellowships like the Marshall and the Truman and the Rhodes, and the Fulbright. And the idea here is that, you know, we had a, a, a good group of students who, whose interests were growing and diversifying. And so I think there was a campus push, I think maybe a year or two before me was the, uh, first Rhodes scholar in the history of Howard University.

Right. So the, I think there was this kind of idea that our students can compete nationally and should be kind of immersing themselves in these, uh, types of experiences.

I was eager to kinda push myself and kinda do different and eclectic and exciting things.

There was kind of a campus buzz around people kinda getting involved in things. And then I think that ran parallel with a growing interest of mine in global health and activism and doing well and, and inequalities, uh, and things of this nature. Which also ran parallel to my scientific career. So I at least kind of, a lot of things were going on at the same time.

Here's the greatest thing about my experience of Howard University in the sciences: Everybody next to you, you wanted them to achieve. That's the single thing. We wanted us all to do well.

So we pushed each other and competed, but we really, really wanted everybody to succeed. And we had a pride in everyone doing well. Now that changes the classroom dynamic because, your self-esteem, your, your self-esteem isn't on the line all the time. You're, you're, you're in a place that's nurturing in a way, it's still hard.

You still have to do the work, but you're doing it from a place of, it's not antagonism. It's a place where, you know, uh, I actually want people, I, I, I wanna do better than you, but I want you to do better than them (laughs).

And, and I think that was a really important thing for me to see at that point not coming from a great academic environment.

And I think Howard was really, really important for me and kids like me, who come from those types of backgrounds. And, uh, that's why I think you see it working.

Look at Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, right? She's a woman, right, who, uh, has a very kind of interesting background of her own. Right? And I think her, she's, you know, she's, you know, you know, she's kind of lived in multiple places, she's from a multi-ethnic background of her own. That's another thing you hear, you notice, about Howard University.

Howard University as a whole is a very accepting place with regards to what your background is.

There are a lot of individuals of mixed ancestry there and they come there and they kind of come, they kind of learned to embrace the positive parts of, of their identity.

This has, this is something else very, very powerful, uh, I see manifesting in president, in Vice President Harris.

Personally, I had this growing scientific interest in infectious diseases and it kinda interfaced nicely with my growing political awareness around inequalities. Um, and I think that kinda, it was fostered a lot by kind of my experience growing up with, with HIV, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Which is really the thing that kind of changed my imagination and framed how I thought about kind of disease and the relationship between disease and society. So this was a part of my identity from pretty early. And I think it grew and I learned to get interested in things like malaria during college. So then kind of when you take these two things and you put them together, I said, you know what?

It would be really, really interesting and important for my career to be able to kind of do some real work, right, in another part of the world where they're actually being affected by these things. Certainly I saw HIV/AIDS in my community but I wanted some other experiences, and I had done a lot of laboratory research during college. Uh, but it was important for me to get this other step, uh, to b e able to really, really see these things. At that point I kinda was between careers, I didn't know whether or not I wanted to practice medicine. I don't know if I wanted to do research, but I had a bunch of different ideas. And so I thought that this experience could be a good opportunity to do so. I ended up meeting with some of the administrators on campus, uh, involved with the, uh, U.S. Fulbright fellowship.

And I decided that it was for me. I then ended up contacting individuals everywhere, kind of across the country who had connections to kind of countries around the world in particular, right, Africa where, uh, where there was kind of a major malaria problem. Um, and I was, um, end up forging this relationship with, uh, the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology based in Nairobi, Kenya. One of the leading, kind of, NGOs in the world that did, kind of, malaria vector control and other kinds of insect work actually, which was important. And that kind of led to me applying, uh, to work there for a year. Uh, and I, and I was accepted.

The Fulbright experience kind of, uh, changed my career, right? And, you know, closed some doors and opened others.

Because again, if you look at my career, even today, I have multiple interests

My lab works on multiple things. I look at the world in multiple ways. And that's just a part of my personality and it's kinda always been that way.

So in college I said, all right, well, I'll apply to everything. I said, I'll apply, uh, to, to medical school. I'll apply to graduate schools and everything from chemistry to biophysics (laughs). That's how kind of diverse my interests were coming out of college. And then I applied to everything. And I got accepted into everything (laughs). And then I also got the Fulbright fellowship.

So I went there with the idea I was gonna come back and start medical school at Yale, um, and then also kind of do a PhD. And, um, and I think that year in Kenya, in Kenya, working there really was the most important year of, one of the most important years of my life, for personal reasons, spiritual reasons, scientific reasons, social and political reasons.

It opened my eyes to everything about how the world worked, the way disease works, the way people are kind of thinking about it. And I decided at that point (laughs), there was pretty much no way I was gonna be bottled up in a, in a job where I couldn't kind of do this type of expansive work all the time.

So a career like medicine -- which is a great profession, right?

Um, I, I knew right away that it wasn't a fit, right? There's no way you're gonna kinda fit me into a hospital setting where there were so many rules.

And also, kind of having seen and been exposed to the way the world worked, I was eager to recreate the life to be a more adult version of the life that I have in Kenya in some ways. Where I was able to, you know, create and, and, and innovate and work with innovative people around solutions.

Problem solving on a global scale was the thing that I knew I wanted to do from my Fulbright experience.

My time in Kenya definitely opened my eyes to the way the world works.

The things that Kenya taught me about the world, uh, were, were important for me to learn at that stage in life. You have to remember I'm from public housing in the United States, right? And so I had this conven-, you know, conception of the way poverty worked here. And I still have that conception of the way poverty works here, because it's very, very serious in the United States.

But I think what I needed to learn was the way it looks and operates and manifests in other parts of the world. And so broadening my perspective on how inequality manifests.

The COVID era, right, misinformation, you know, has been one of the great shapers of COVID-19 policy around the world.

I think early on, it's been this misinformation, kind of war against misinformation around the vaccine. I think that was the early conversation, right? How do we make sure that people have the right information, have access to the right information and understand that this thing is safe and effective?

So the war, it's not where we, we've been fighting the disease, but we've been fighting this poor messaging.

And I think with social media, things can go viral in a moment. And I think I constantly do that. So what do I do? I engage in active conversations with communities. I've engaged in multiple forums. I've talked to heads of church, everything like that self available. And, and what do I actually say when I'm having these conversations is the most important point. Number one, you have to come from a place of empathy. You look back in American history or not even look back, you look at history now, right? Right. You look at all, you know, there are a lot of reasons to be distrustful, ain't it right? There are lots of reasons to be distrustful, right? I think the experimentation on certain bodies and certain populations is a part of the legacy of science and medicine. It is.

And so we have to admit that and deal with that very, very squarely when we're talking about kinda how to get people on board, uh, with this. That said, what I try to say, what I'm thinking, what I'm telling people about why I'm confident in the vaccine, is the vaccine development process. The people who are doing the science, it's not some person, uh, sitting in a white castle, right, pushing buttons and making a decision. The people working on the vaccine are the people like me. It's people who are hustling and trying to do the right thing, right? And we really, really are. It's, right, there's no kind of magic kind of, uh, person on the moon making these decisions. This is a process of tens of thousands of scientists who put their kind of effort and their lives on the line, you know, uh, to try to make this type of thing work.

So my point is by walking people through both the past and the present, the idea here is that we can get people to understand that science, um, it can work.

This thing did not take a year. The research behind the vaccine goes back decades, decades.

The mRNA technology in particular, I mean, you know, vaccinology is several decades, right, right, in, in terms of its modern phase. So this technology itself has been around for many, many years.

that technology is better in:

I call myself a disinformation and misinformation warrior, and it's (laughs), I mean, which is, you know, a silly label in some ways, but it, it does acknowledge that the, uh, the climate calls for people who are willing to kinda engage, um, that disinformation misinformation are just as big illnesses as the actual illnesses are.

I've been involved in kind of very, very large conversations with people where they can ask questions about kind of the vaccine and why they should or shouldn't or things that they saw on YouTube. I mean, I got a lot of very interesting theories and things on Mars and, and, and, you know, and ro- robots in the bloodstream. But again, right, to the bright, to a point that's very critical and important to make, I cannot dismiss those. You have to engage people. Because at the end of the day, people wanna be healthy and happy and have fun with their family and have a good time.

So simply calling on your credentials, right, is not an appropriate way to engage people. You have to meet people where they are. You have to empathize with what their fears are and try to gently walk people through. You don't talk down at them, you talk with them. Um, and at the end of the day, I can't tell anybody what to do.

Right. What I can do is lay out the information in a manner that kinda empowers them to make their own decision. And I think I've been able to do that.

As far as I'm concerned, that's, that's more powerful than anything I will do in a laboratory.

And I found that just as, uh, gratifying as anything."

What my Fulbright experience did for me, uh, well, it, it really is the most important intellectual year of my life.

Number one, I came out of college. I was chemistry and mathematics, and I, you know, I had taken a little bit of biology here and there. I had never taken a course on ecology, on evolution, on insects, anything, ever, not for a second. Okay? I went to Fulbright and I read everything about mosquitoes, knew, I, I published three manuscripts about mosquitoes and ecology and doing work in nature. I had never done work in nature before. Right? At that, so my point is, I was able to really do science originally, uh, with, on my own, with a lot of independence having forged my own relationships doing work in infectious disease. So that's what my point is in terms of my independent scientific trajectory. I mean, now I'm a professor of ecology and evolution of infectious disease. I mean, the thread runs directly from my Fulbright experience. I still publish work on malaria. I don't do mosquitoes, but I still do work on malaria, and we writing the grant of malaria.

So the signature on my science is very, very, very clear.

I have a very kind of interesting and complicated, you know, complicated family history of myself, right? So my father is Nigerian, but I was not raised by him. Right? So I don't have a relationship at all with my father. I was raised with my mother who's, you know, who's African-American. So my point is going to Kenya, where it's not -where I do not have ancestry. I have no connection to Kenya kind of, uh, part, you know, ethnically or, you know, uh, genealogically. It was still me connecting with Africa in a way in, and, and I kinda, I found out kinda they were, that I, uh, uh, making a connection with the continent in this way was very important for my kind of emotional and psychological development as a young person. And I did not realize that until after I was there. Um, to see how beautiful the continent is and how beautiful the people are, how young the continent is, how they will not be denied moving into this next century.

They're gonna, they're, they're bright. They're gonna do great things. And they're gonna be, the more, the world is going to have to contend with them in a good way, right? In the sense of they're gonna kind of continue to do, they're gonna do wonderful things in this world. That was very, very important for me to see. And then more generally, just like the global perspective on things. Look, the thing about being American, independent of what your background is, we are narrow. And even me, I thought I was kind of broad-minded as like a college kid. Right? I thought I was, and I thought that I kinda knew what went on in the world, um, particularly after 9/11. Right? I think a lot of us began to think about how the world worked. I realized when I was in Kenya, I didn't know anything about the way the world actually works, and have, to have to kind of even talk to not just Kenyan scientists, but Cameroonian scientists and, and Belgian scientists.

And, and, right, from around the world, I think, wow, this is how science actually works around the world. There are independent scientists around the world doing cutting edge world-class work. I felt like more of a citizen of the world because of the Fulbright experience.

You know, I can only speak for being an American is the only place, that's the only citizenship I've ever had. Um, all right, only place I've ever, you know, lived, lived before I went to my Fulbright. Uh, growing up, um, even when you're eclectic and original, you're still original within a very narrow context.

So I was interested in comics and sci-fi and things of that nature, and that was eclectic for the setting I was in. You, you know, and I, you know, and it, and it's still is. It is still is eclectic. But I, part of, kind of my triumph, the triumph of a lot of people is realizing, even if I'm doing well in this box, this is still a box. And there's a lot of other experiences that you can kind of break into.

I remember my mother took us to dinner one day, she made us dress up and go to some fancy steak house or something like that. I was a little, little boy. She made us dress up and like the violin player, you know, came over and started (laughs) playing violin at our table.

And this was an important thing for us to see, right, because like, this is the way some people live. And I remember being seven or eight years old and thinking I belonged there, right? Now, we didn't do that ever again. I haven't done that since, as a grownup with an actual job. But the point is that there are other places in this, in my, in the country when I was young, there are other settings, right, where you, if you wanna do it, you can belong. Is that the art world or what have you? And I think that attitude of being encouraged to explore and try different things, um, it doesn't mean the things outside of your community are better.

It just means that you should be able to have, to have access to whatever you want. Right? Um, and that's my, that's what I've tried to do. So going to Howard University, going to the Fulbright, going to Yale for my PhD, going to Harvard for my postdoc, going for my jobs from Vermont to Brown. Now back to Yale. At all of these places, two things have been true. One is, I've had to expand and get out of my comfort zone in every single one of these settings. All of my research, I've had to learn new things, all of my writing and outreach, I have to learn new things, but I also stick and bring myself to those jobs. I do not feel like I have to be someone else in the settings.

Like what you're getting here is pretty much just the grownup version of me at 17 years old. Right? Just, I just read a lot more books since then. And I think that message of your home and yourself is a valuable thing. You are brilliant and beautiful the way you are, but there is nothing in this world you can't have. I think that's a theme. And I think the Fulbright experience was a very important part of that theme.

I encourage people, like don't be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone. If you look in any paradigm, the people who made leaps forward did just that. They were people who kind of like got into different things and were thought, you thought, they were, you know, they thought they were crazy or other people thought they were crazy. So programs like Fulbright, right? And I really urge people to try something truly different, right? True now, now you should have the skills to do the work (laughs). You shouldn't be unprepared to do the stuff, right? Uh, but if you have the skills to do it, try something different in particular as your junior person kind of developing your professional identity and who you are.

Be that photography or anthropology or art or in my case, science, um, you will be, you will thank yourself for the long term for having kind of made these types of bold steps. And I think the Fulbright is a perfect example of that.

The exchange changed my life.