C. Denise Okafor, Soon-To-Be Assistant Professor, Pennsylvania State University

Preparing for an independent research career – and a colder climate

C. Denise Okafor is on the move. She’s finishing her stint as a postdoctoral researcher in Emory University. In January 2020, she will begin her independent research career as an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in Pennsylvania State University. She’s moving to State College, where the climate is much cooler than Atlanta’s.

Denise was born in Nashville, Tennessee, but spent her high-school years in Nigeria, attending the Air Force Secondary School in Lagos. For her undergraduate work, she attended Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She started as a biomedical chemistry and premed major, but by her third year, she got less and less excited about being a physician.

A summer position in the University of Memphis, in Tennessee, changed Denise’s academic trajectory. During 10 weeks of undergraduate research in the chemistry department, she learned about graduate school and research. “I knew immediately that this was the next step for me,” Denise says. She registered for the GRE exam, applied to graduate programs, and received multiple acceptances, including to Georgia Tech.

After Denise earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Georgia Tech, she took a postdoctoral research position at Emory University.

What was your path to your current position? How did Georgia Tech prepare you for it?

During my Ph.D. studies, I gained teaching experience by working as a teaching assistant, laboratory instructor, and guest lecturer. I applied to the FIRST program at Emory, an NIH-funded program that provides pedagogical training for postdocs seeking faculty positions. My experiences at Georgia Tech made me competitive for selection to this program.

Georgia Tech provided a strong research environment, which gave me a solid foundation. In addition to learning how to perform experiments, analyze and properly disseminate my findings, I learned how to become an independent thinker and self-motivated scientist.

My Ph.D. advisors – Nicholas Hud and Loren Williams – encouraged a balance between acquiring technical expertise in one’s field and taking ownership of a project to drive it forward. They were flexible and encouraged creativity. My training allowed me to see myself as a leader who could generate new ideas and had the expertise to execute them.

In my postdoctoral position, I brought computational expertise to the laboratory, collaborating on multiple projects with experimentalists, investigating new ideas and directions for our research, and training group members on computational methods. These achievements were made possible by the strong skills I gained at Georgia Tech.

What is a typical day in your current position?

A typical day consists of performing experiments in the lab as well as on my computer. Data analysis takes up a large chunk of time and can be the largest part of most days. There are occasional meetings with the group, principal investigator, and individual members to discuss research ideas, challenges, or future goals. As the sole computational researcher in the group, my expertise is crucial for particular research questions.

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

I recently obtained a five-year, $500,000 career award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. This enables me to pursue exciting research questions and gives me a head-start in my independent career as a faculty member at Penn State.

I have hired a technician and purchased a computer cluster, which has greatly enhanced my research productivity over the past year. I have also generated data that opens the door to future, very exciting research questions.

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech to make you successful professionally?

My path through Georgia Tech was not easy or linear. There were multiple stumbles, but also multiple opportunities for redemption. I attribute this to faculty members who took it upon themselves to mentor me, giving me advice on how to recover and move forward. I believe that I have attained success now because I have gained great confidence in my abilities and learned how to move forward from stumbles, realizing that past failures do not define me.

As I prepare to start my career as a professor, the most important thing I will keep in mind – also the most important thing I learned at Georgia Tech – is that a person’s past or present record is not an indicator of their future potential. Thus, mentors and teachers should approach this role with tact and kindness, knowing that every word has great potential to influence a mentee/student’s self-perception, vision, and future. 

How are you preparing for the next phase of your career?

In January 2020, I will transition to an assistant professor position and a research group leader role. I am preparing scientifically by performing lots of preliminary experiments for my laboratory, with the hope that I can hit the ground running when I arrive at Penn State. I am also attending a couple of workshops this fall, geared at grantsmanship and new faculty training, both of which I anticipate will give me a strong start. Finally, I am also trying to prepare mentally for the move to a much colder climate!

What career advice would you give to current students at Georgia Tech? 

Georgia Tech is a world-class research environment with an amazing amount of expertise among its professors, instructors, staff, and other personnel. Take full advantage of the resources, get the best possible advice you can concerning your future path. You can leverage these powerfully for future success.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

I write fiction in my spare time. I have published two novels under a pen name and am writing my fourth.

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

Mae Jemison. In addition to being the first black woman to go to space, she was also trained as both a chemical engineer and a medical doctor. While I marvel at the thought of one person with this wide array of training, I am most fascinated by her history as a dancer and a choreographer. As a scientist who also has artistic hobbies, I think it would be thrilling to pick both sides of her brain.