CHIAMAKA UKACHUKWU, M.S.
2nd Year Graduate Student, Pharmacology
OGPS: What is your academic and research background?
Ukachukwu: I received my B.S. in Biochemistry and French minor from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a M.S. in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) from the University of Michigan. My research background is in biochemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, and electrophysiology. Prior to joining PIBS I worked as a research technician in Raquel Lieberman’s lab where I used X-ray crystallography to characterize and determine the structures of Orf17 and 5’NAA-A, potential antibiotic drug targets in Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Streptomyces scabies respectively. My Master’s thesis focused on uncovering the role of csgD, a transcription factor essential for biofilm formation in E. coli, in regulating the localization of extracellular matrix components. I then moved to Brussels, Belgium for one year as a Fulbright research grantee and a Belgian American Educational Foundation research fellow where I investigated the structure-function relationship of a novel, putative chaperone-protease that is critical for maintaining the integrity of the outer membrane in E. coli and promotes antibiotic resistance.
Now, as a rising 2nd year Ph.D. student, my research is completely unrelated to my previous work. I work in David Jones’ lab where I use electrophysiology and biophysics to investigate the role of hERG–the voltage gated potassium channel that conducts the cardiac repolarizing current–as a novel therapeutic target for diseases of cardiac excitability.
OGPS: How did you decide what you wanted to do in your science career?
Ukachukwu: My career path is constantly evolving. I have always taken the approach of pursuing opportunities that will allow me to test experiences that I am interested in. If I enjoy them and find them exciting, I move forward; if not, I reassess and try something new. A great piece of advice I received from a recruiter at McKinsey at the National Society of Black Engineering Conference was “don’t try to fit yourself into a job, find or create a job that fits you”. I know that whatever my career entails, it will include living and traveling abroad, integrating into different cultures and communities, mentorship and teaching, especially for minority groups in STEM, working to ensure people from all backgrounds are treated fairly, and conducting research that has a positive impact on global health. I am sure I will find more things that I enjoy along the way and plan to take advantage of every opportunity as a PIBS student to tailor my training to my interests.
OGPS: Describe one of your current research initiatives that you are most excited about and why.
Ukachukwu: For my current project, I am exploring ways to manipulate hERG behavior, a voltage-gated potassium channel that conducts the major cardiac repolarizing current IKr, to treat cardiac diseases of excitability such as Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), a condition where individuals have increased risk of arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death. Our collaborators at the University of Porto developed a library of antibody fragments that target the regulatory domain of hERG and change its kinetics. During my rotation I demonstrated that exogenous expression of these antibody fragments modulate hERG behavior in a way that could exert cardioprotective effects in a physiologically relevant context.
Now I am working on packaging one of the antibody fragments into a virus to transduce a LQTS induced pluripotent stem-cell derived cardiomyocyte (iPS-CM) line to test if it will correct perturbed cardiac electrical activity. I am most excited about this because 1) if we see the desired effect, this would support that our antibody fragment could be developed into a targeted-gene therapy and 2) I get to work with beating heart cells in the lab! The coolest part is that I will be able to measure the electrical activity of iPS-CMs and see the effects of the antibody fragment in real time.
OGPS: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Ukachukwu: I am most proud of being concurrently awarded a Fulbright research grant and a Belgian American Educational Foundation research fellowship to conduct an independent research project at the de Duve Institute in Belgium. When I graduated from college I applied to over 30 graduate and post-bacc programs, including PIBS, and was admitted into 0 programs. Being awarded these two prestigious and world-renowned grants in the final year of my Master’s program was one of the most rewarding and uplifting experiences I had at Michigan and in my life. It reaffirmed what I already knew, that I was qualified and ready for the Ph.D. program and am a brilliant and capable scientist.
My path to Fulbright and B.A.E.F is an indirect result of being declined admission to multiple post-bacc and Ph.D. programs. As I was preparing to defend my Master’s thesis, I decided to take advantage of the natural gap I would have between programs. I spoke with friends, mentors, colleagues, and my advisor, Matthew Chapman, about my aspirations of moving to a Francophone country while doing meaningful science that would benefit society. I was serendipitously introduced to the Fulbright Program when I wandered over to the International Institute at UM. I then discovered the Fulbright Program Advising office at UM and utilized the inexhaustible list of resources available for UM prospective applicants. With their support and guidance, I prepared a winning application.
OGPS: What is one piece of advice you would give new PhD students?
Ukachukwu: “Be true to yourself and good things will continue to come your way.” My first research advisor, Raquel Lieberman gave me this advice when I won the Fulbright. To me this means, be honest and sincere in pursuing your dreams. Along the journey, do not allow other people to tell you what you are capable of and embrace rejection and failure; negative experiences build character and make you stronger. Where there is a will, there is a way. If there is no way, you make a way. Whenever I am feeling discouraged or doubtful, I remind myself that every single person on this planet was born knowing nothing. If they can learn, achieve, overcome challenges, etc., so can I and so can you.
OGPS: What do you like to do outside of the lab?
Ukachukwu: I love to play soccer, dance and choreograph dances, especially to afrobeats songs. Most of my friends know me for dancing and I can dance for hours at a time, my record is probably 8 hours at an afrobeats party. I also enjoy performing spoken-word, writing poetry, and blogging/vlogging my experiences as a graduate student, world-traveler, and my life in general. I enjoy doing natural hair and have a YouTube channel that covers a variety of topics from hair tutorials to moving abroad.
OGPS: What are your future goals?
Ukachukwu: I want to do research that has a positive impact on the world, travel the world and live in different countries, and be paid lucratively for doing what I love. I see myself leading an international research team focused on improving human health and mentoring/teaching students. My immediate future goal is to secure a research position in France after defending my Ph.D. and to enjoy life. Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world and has a huge afrobeats dance community that I plan to be apart of. I also want to become proficient in French. This will allow me to travel to Francophone Africa where I hope to help further develop research institutions for the benefit of the continent.