Originally from Nigeria’s “small London” Abriba in Abia State, Ndiya Ogba has spent a huge chunk of her life in the United States of America, and currently works as an oncology scientist/medical writer at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Determined to leave an indelible mark on science and challenge her adventurous side, she embarked on a doctorate degree in Pharmacology, with a focus on breast cancer and Endocrinology. Before then, she had obtained a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Benedict College.
As part of our focus on high academic achievements, BellaNaija had the chance to chat with Ndiya about her work as a brilliant scientist. We hope you are inspired by her story.
Tell us about your early life
I grew up in different
parts of Nigeria, though I consider Aba to be home and have fond memories of living there. I completed my secondary school education at Command Secondary School in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, and was on the science track because I have always enjoyed math and science classes more than others. I pursued an undergraduate degree in Biology and a doctorate in Pharmacology. I also completed post-doctoral training at the University of Colorado. Currently, I
work as an oncology scientist/medical writer at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), and most of my day is spent reading and writing about advancements in cancer treatments. My current role is an extension of my passion for the sciences and their benefit to mankind while supporting the adventurous side of me that wishes to be continually challenged.
What is your area of specialization and what inspired you to get a doctorate in that field?
My PhD is in Pharmacology, with a focus on breast cancer and Endocrinology. I was drawn to these areas because of my college mentor, Dr. Samir Raychoudhury who is a reproductive toxicologist. Our work on various research projects gave me exposure to how everyday chemicals in our environment can mimic hormones in our bodies and potentially contribute to cancer. This got me interested in learning more about how drugs and chemicals interact with the body, which is what pharmacology is.
Why did you decide to go for a PhD?
In college, my goal was to pursue a career as a medical doctor. However, exposure to basic research gave me an appreciation for how important both basic and clinical research are to the medical field and I wanted that to be a part of my career. It also helped that my father and several other family members have PhDs in different fields—mathematics, physics, engineering, and political science— so I knew it could provide the opportunity to examine unanswered questions in hopes of improving our society.
What was the hardest part about being a doctoral student?
Persevering when ideas and experiments I felt strongly about failed… and they failed often. I also had a hard time accepting that failure is an important part of growth. I do not like failing, so this was often a challenge, and a lesson I am always learning.
Did the need to remain abroad and not have to come back to Nigeria have anything to do with it?
No, not necessarily. It has always been difficult for me to be away from my family, but I suppose in life, one must forge one’s own path as well, and it is not without sacrifice. When the opportunity came, I felt very fortunate and was happy to take it.
What are some of the challenges you faced during your studies and how did you overcome them?
Each phase of the process (classes, qualifying examinations, working on dissertation project etc) came with challenges: Do I know enough to pass exams? Have I read enough articles to be ahead with my project or in this field? Are these ideas new or good? Am I good enough? With each challenge, I found it very helpful to be open with others, so I could learn from them and not feel isolated. I am grateful for the foundation I have from my family and faith in God, of valuing hard work and pressure, especially when I did not feel like persevering. I also relied heavily on my support network including my graduate school mentor, Dr. Monica Montano, lab mates, friends, family and church community to push through. I learned from others too that taking a break and having fun will help relieve pressure. I like to just keep going, but you can quickly burn out without stopping to take care of yourself and have fun as well. A break was often what I needed to recollect myself and get a new perspective when I was stuck.
When it comes to the dissertation, what separates the “almost finished” from a job well done?
I’m sure there are many factors that go into it, so I will miss something here, but it seems that when your dissertation is able to cohesively communicate a story—built on a central hypothesis or multiple hypotheses, supported by compelling and consistent data—that you can articulate with your mentor and thesis committee, then you are done. The thesis committee is an essential check in this respect, as they help guide you through the process and vet ideas, so it’s truly a collaborative effort at the end. Technically, you can always discover more, so it is never done.
Are there really any advantages to having a PhD in our current generation? What edge do you think it has given you?
I will say that it’s not necessary for many fulfilling careers, but I believe that having a PhD can offer tangible career opportunities for those who choose that path. One route that many take is to enter academia, and become professors, which positions you in a critical place to impact future generations and through research, continue to push the boundaries of what we know, and perhaps what we can do. Speaking from a biomedical science perspective, if academia is not your path, but you enjoy the process of research, one could work as a bench scientist, research analyst, consultant or medical science liaison at pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies. Other potential career paths include patent law, and medical communication. There are so many other areas I’m still learning about.
How has your PhD helped you in your present career? And how should other aspiring PhD holders be using their backgrounds to their advantage?
Having a PhD helped me leverage my skills to make a transition from bench science/laboratory research to medical writing, and my background in cancer research helped me determine that I could develop my skill set with NCCN, given their mission in cancer care. Having my background allows me to dive into unfamiliar territories using the principles I learned as a student.
In hindsight, would you do it again?
Yes and maybe. Yes, because it has provided so many opportunities for me, and I have enjoyed the process of seeing how far I can push myself. Maybe, because who knows? I find many things equally interesting and might have decided to do other things as well.
How do you think you can improve the Nigerian state with the knowledge you have garnered from your studies?
Nigerians are brilliant and resourceful. I would like to learn more about how other PhD holders are using their skills and share that with young students in Nigeria. I think with more exposure to different career paths early on, there is tremendous potential to improve things by empowering each individual and our communities. So, I think mentoring is a key piece. In the future, I’d like to understand how I can collaborate with existing organizations in Nigeria that are committed to promoting the advancement of science education and developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) infrastructure in our schools.
What is your opinion on the system of education in Nigeria? What needs to be changed or introduced?
From what I experienced going to secondary school and what I’ve heard about universities, I know there are things that we do well, but the lack of infrastructure and funding remain major barriers to our educational system. Without adequate support for sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and enrichment programs for students, it will be difficult to reap the benefits in the long-term. When I was coming up in primary school, we used to sing a song about education being accessible to all by 2000. I think it would be helpful to redraw what our vision is for education in Nigeria as a whole, and perhaps with that we can start to build on a few key areas—funding and infrastructure being two of them.
What advice would you give those looking to embark on the PhD journey? Also, what encouragement do you have for current PhD candidates?
For those looking to start the journey, I’d encourage you to be clear on why you want to get a PhD and not other degrees. Like many things, it is an investment, and good to determine that for yourself. For current PhD candidates, I would encourage you to persevere and keep your end goals in mind. My parents often reminded me of this. There are times that things will not go as planned, and your initial plans may change—there is no shame in that. Be open to seeking advice and engaging your talents and experience in ways you hadn’t anticipated.
Thank you so much, for your time. It was really an honor to chat with you. If you have more question for Ndiya Ogba, she can be reached via e-mail : [email protected]