Ujunwa Cynthia Okoye-Okafur, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Students of all ages and backgrounds come to Yeshiva University to pursue a range of professional and personal dreams, from scientific research and medicine to law, Jewish education and the creative arts. Our students seek to harness their unique talents and YU education to make a lasting impact on the world around them. This spring, when they graduate, these new alumni will hit the ground running.
In the weeks leading up to Commencement, YU News will feature one remarkable graduate from each school, reflecting on their time here, their passions and their dreams for the future.
Meet the Class of 2016.
As a young girl growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, and after moving to New York 14 years ago at age 15, Ujunwa Cynthia Okoye-Okafor always desired to be a doctor. It was during her pharmacology training as an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University that she began to consider the career path that would eventually lead her to YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she graduated in May with a dual MD-PhD degree.
“Realizing my new interest in research, my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Hsien-Yu Wang, informed me about the availability of MD-PhD programs that would allow me to integrate my passions for medicine and research,” Okoye-Okafor explained. “After looking into various programs across the country, I am very happy that I applied to and was accepted into the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) here at Einstein.”
Okoye-Okafor defended her PhD thesis in the laboratory of Dr. Ulrich Steidl in 2014. “I characterized the expression and function of a novel gene, BX648577, that was identified as a gene fusion in Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” said Okoye-Okafor, who has published several scholarly articles and won numerous awards for her research. “I was also involved in the study of a new inhibitor compound for the treatment of IDH1 mutant acute myeloid leukemias.”
Transitioning back to clinical practice after the research portion of the program proved to be a unique challenge: “The difficulties associated with returning to the wards after four years away were not obvious initially, but it took a lot of focus, dedication, hard work and emotional support to overcome them,” she said.
But overcome them she did. Okoye-Okafor matched to the New York University Anatomic and Clinical pathology residency program, which she will begin this summer. Her goal is to become a pathologist, while maintaining a strong research career. “Moving forward, I hope to continue to participate in research projects that have tangible translational implications, as such studies can lead to downstream future therapies,” she said, referring to the application of laboratory findings to determine the best practice for real-life medical situations.
In addition to her academic pursuits, Okoye-Okafor participated in various activities and associations outside the classroom, including the Einstein Community Health Outreach Program, the Student National Medical Association and the New York Academy of Sciences STEM program. She served as a board member of Einstein’s MSTP student council, and as the acting president/vice-president of the Distinguished Nigerian Physicians of Tomorrow , whose mission is to help find solutions to the problems within Nigeria’s healthcare system.
Okoye-Okafor credited Einstein for fostering her growth as both a medical professional and scientist. “My principal investigator, Dr. Steidl, has made a permanent and positive impact on me as a scientist and an individual,” said Okoye-Okafor. “I will always admire his dedication to his scientific goals, career aspirations and family.”
She added, “Einstein has done a great job creating an environment that fosters collegiality. I truly appreciate all the support and guidance that has been provided by the deans and Dr. Myles Akabas. The friendships I formed during my eight years here have been truly memorable and I wholeheartedly look forward to what the future holds.”