#082: Pearl Osirike Story

In this episode Pearl Osirike shares her story and some of the most important lessons she has learned during her PhD so far.  Pearl is a biochemist with an interest in drug discovery and infectious diseases. She holds a first-class degree and a masters degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where she also serves as an Assistant Lecturer. Currently, she is a second year PhD student of Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana. 

Pearl is passionate about teaching and research and she is excited to share her story to motivate and inspire others. 

As a PhD student, the workload is vast, so I have learnt to break down enormous tasks into smaller, chewable sizes for effectiveness and to celebrate each small victory along the way. I find that each little victory gives me the strength to push on when the going gets tough.

To learn more about Pearl’s story, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Enjoy Listening!


Transcript

Welcome to PhD Career Stories, the podcast about career paths inside and outside academia. My name is Karin Martinsson and it is my pleasure to introduce Pearl Osirike to you. 
Pearl is a biochemist with an interest in drug discovery and infectious diseases. 

She holds a first class degree and a masters degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where she also serves as an Assistant Lecturer. Currently, she is a second year PhD student of Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana. 
Pearl is passionate about teaching and research and she is excited to share her story to motivate and inspire others. Enjoy this episode of PhD Career Stories!

Hello! My name is Pearl Ihuoma Akazue (previously called Osirike). I am a second year PhD student, studying Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases (MCBI) at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens – the name is quite a mouthful so you can say WACCBIP for short (pronounced wack-beep…lol). 

I am Nigerian. I have both a first degree and a masters degree in biochemistry from the University of Benin, Nigeria. Currently, I am undergoing a PhD program at the University of Ghana. My love for science dates back to my early childhood; I was particularly interested in medicinal plants and in understanding how these plant treatments worked. Growing up in Africa, I got used to seeing people take these medications (basically decoctions from plants) and I took a lot of them as a child. These treatments, in most cases, were highly effective. I really wanted to understand why this was the case.

An incident I remember with fondness was a measles outbreak in my area that affected my home. I made a herbal preparation which we applied topically. In two days, we were perfectly fine – and there was not even a scar. That was a “eureka” moment for me. Much later, my interest in the biological sciences was rekindled during a genetics class. I got to understand that living organisms (humans inclusively) were by far more complex than I had ever imagined. I asked myself several questions, and it was my desire to find answers to the most profound questions that lingered in my mind that spurred me to study Biochemistry.

For my PhD, I seek to understand how certain trypanocidal compounds (both compounds derived from medicinal plants and synthetic compounds) carry out their activity. I hope to identify specific cellular processes and molecular interactions in trypanosomes (parasitic organisms that cause disease in humans and animals) that are targeted by these compounds, with the ultimate aim of identifying compounds that would be promising starting points for the development of new drugs against Animal African Trypanosomiasis (AAT). AAT is a major wasting disease of livestock in Africa that has a profound negative impact on agricultural production and results in huge economic losses.

So far, my PhD experience has been a very beautiful one and I have learnt so much already, though I still have a lot more learning to do. Last year, I have shared some lessons I learned on my PhD journey on my blog, and I have just released an update. However, I would be sharing some of the most important lessons I have learnt so far with you on this podcast.

Lesson 1: Ask a lot of questions

From childhood, I grew up asking myself questions and silently finding answers to those questions. This might have been because of my naturally introverted tendencies or perhaps I grew up in a culture where asking questions was not particularly encouraged. I have now come to understand the importance of asking questions – and asking them out. In reality, there are no silly questions. Ghanaians have a popular saying: “knowledge is not in the head of one person”. The desire to answer questions drives every research and I find that the more questions I ask, the more clarity and insight I gain.

Lesson 2: Be open

Lots of people have the tendency to jealously conceal their ideas because they fear it could be “stolen” from them. Contrary to this belief, I find that openly discussing my thoughts help me crystallise my ideas. I also receive constructive feedback by doing so. Thankfully, WACCBIP encourages its staff and students to discuss their ideas openly. These days, I am better able to share my opinions and my needs: it is a lot easier to get help from other people if they understand how they can be of help. On the flip side, I used to be a “sponge” when it comes to ideas – I read scientific papers, books or whatever just to glean knowledge out of it. I selectively took out what I found useful and discarded information I considered to be irrelevant. Now, I am open to every information but I take them in “with a pinch of salt”: I call that “healthy scepticism”. I find that it is important to critically evaluate every information then make an informed decision on what my position is on the subject and how I can improve on existing knowledge.

Lesson 3: Have fun and celebrate small wins

As a PhD student, the workload is vast so I have learnt to break down enormous tasks into smaller, chewable sizes for effectiveness and to celebrate each small victory along the way. If I fail to do this, I get overwhelmed by the thought of the enormous task ahead, and I am barely productive. The environment at WACCBIP is very competitive. Everyone produces immense value – nothing short is expected. I find that each little victory gives me the strength to push on when the going gets tough. Work is just like air – it fills every space available to it. It is tempting to be so carried away with studies that my life becomes very regimental. In reality, this reduces productivity and heightens boredom. I understand that achieving a work-life balance is essential, so I try to balance things. Writing on my blog is one of many other things I do for fun. Aside from the great joy I derive whenever I get the opportunity to put my thoughts together in one piece, it also helps me to express myself better and to improve on my writing skills, which is invaluable for my research career. 

Lesson 4: Clarity

I have always known about the importance of being clear about what one desires out of life but being at WACCBIP has made me better appreciate that. Before the commencement of any research, one is expected to have an unambiguous picture of the task ahead: What research questions are you asking? What is your approach to answering these questions? When you get your answers, how do you deduce meaning out of it? How innovative would the answers you get be? What do you need to get an answer to your question and how long would it take you to do so? These are basic. The tune of your research would evolve as you commence but then you need to be on top of your game even before you start. I cannot help but notice how critical this approach is to solving real-life problems. You must always have a clear-cut plan for tackling any obstacle on your way. You should have a sense of direction because if you do not have a destination, you would never arrive.

Lesson 5: Every second counts

I work in a research laboratory that houses two distinctly different research groups, and our large research family is made up of at least thirty members. Each individual has their own project – and every project is important. One of the first lessons I learnt when I began my research was to plan my time more efficiently so that I book the facilities I need to use early enough so I could have unrestrained assess to them when I need to use them. I also learnt to be very considerate in my use of equipment, knowing that many other students are waiting to use the same facilities. I tried to avoid the ‘morning rush’ by planning my experiments in the early afternoon right after lunch when I was both refreshed and productive, while I put my mornings to good use reading scientific literature and writing. Typically, Mondays are my busiest days with departmental seminars in the late morning dovetailing into early afternoon and my lab’s journal club meetings right after the lunch break, so I try to use this day to plan my experiments for the week and for any other tasks does not overexert me physically or mentally.

Lesson 6: Self-motivation

During the first phase of my PhD programme, I had to sit-in for classes: some of which were mandatory, others were voluntary. When I had some free time from classes, I would work on assignments, make preparations for class presentations, peer discussions and then do my personal study. The realisation of the amount of work I needed to invest in order to scale through the hurdle of my PhD qualifying examination was enough motivation to get me going through that phase. As the research component of my programme kicked in, I realised that I needed to have something more tangible to get me going: I knew that I had full control of my time (I still do) and I needed to work independently to execute my project. This made me think critically about my reason for pursuing a PhD and how it aligned with my life’s purpose. I learnt to continually remind myself why I needed to get up each morning and turn up in the lab to get things done. Each day, I wake up with the full consciousness of what I need to achieve. This was very challenging at first, but I find that being focused on my goals and working consistently makes me more productive. As an African scientist, I have seen excellent examples of exceptional people who have achieved greatness despite their humble beginnings and against all the odds. This is a massive inspiration to me. It makes me realise that my dreams are possible, and I can achieve anything I set my mind to be without any limitations. I have also seen incredible women excelling in every facet of life and these sparks up unquenchable fires in me. 

Lesson 7: Start from somewhere…anywhere

The day after I was notified that I had successfully scaled through my qualifying exams, I remember feeling this gripping fear – it dawned on me that my solo-journey had begun and I was too scared to start. I had a mental picture of what I had to do, and I understood the theoretical concepts, but putting to practice what I had read was where my challenge lied. The nature of the experiments I was about to do was a lot different from anything I had ever done in my life, but I knew that I needed to start from somewhere. With some encouragement from my supervisor, I set up my first experiments, optimised my protocols and set up several successful experiments. This was a major confidence booster for me. From each experimental set-up, I learn, unlearn and relearn new ways of doing things, and this makes it so exciting. Looking back, I realise that there is never a time when I would feel adequately primed to begin a new round of experiments or in fact anything in life. I need to start from somewhere – anywhere. 

Lesson 8: The power of community

At WACCBIP, we are not random researchers doing science instead we are a community – a formidable force. Everyone has a strong sense of belonging and responsibility. We are one big family made up of different people from different backgrounds with different strengths all pulling together their uniqueness in beautiful harmony. The centre has achieved all it has in such a short time because of its unity. If we are ever going to do anything epic in life as humans, we need to be united, and I have seen this at play. We must identify our strengths and leverage on it to add value to those around us. I work in a group with individuals of different ethnicities and as a result, different beliefs and ways of doing things. Over the past few months, I have learnt how to work with every member of the group by effectively leveraging the strengths of each person and complementing their weakness. On few occasions, conflicts arise due to differing views, but I have also learnt the importance of working through our differences amicably knowing that our primary focus is to ensure the success of the team as a whole and each individual that makes up the team.

Lesson 9: Plan effectively

A PhD by itself is a tasking learning experience, but a PhD in Africa is even more demanding. For a pessimist, it is discouraging, but I like to see the bright side of things. I am so thankful to be working at a centre which provides access to state-of-the-art research facilities both here in Africa and worldwide through the help of our strong international collaborations. We, however, still have our peculiar challenges. For instance, when research supplies are ordered, they take months to arrive, and if proper care is not taken, this could stifle creativity and productivity. To work around this situation, I have learnt to plan my experiments several months in advance and to order adequate quantities of the items that I need to execute my research knowing fully well that I might not have easy access to all the supplies that I need when I need them. I am now translating this principle to other aspects of my life.

Lesson 10: Learning from the highs and the lows

Before the commencement of my PhD programme, I heard several stories about PhD blues and frustrations. At the time, I could empathise with those going through such an experience, though I could not fully understand how it would feel to be in their shoes. I had my experience of it in March/April this year when some of my experiments did not turn out the way I had anticipated they would. For some days/weeks, I was destabilised. This gave me a better understanding of not just the PhD life, but life itself. Like any other life experience, the PhD journey has its highs and lows. During these times, I think deeply about the situation and the possibilities. I have learnt to enjoy each phase mindfully and to learn all the lessons I can from each experience maximally. I like to remind myself from time to time how far I have gone in this PhD journey and dwelling on positive thoughts gives me more strength for the rest of the journey.

I really do hope that you find some of these lessons useful, and feel free to connect with me 🙂

And that is it for another episode of PhD Career Stories. As always, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us by commenting on our blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. 

If you like what we do, please subscribe to our show on Itunes or Spotify. 

So that’s goodbye for now, but we will be back with a new story for you in two weeks time.

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