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magazine home > archives > spring 2005 > features

A prestigious scholarship is allowing a U of M student researcher an opportunity to study a disease that annually kills thousands.

American Dream
by Robert Humphreys

  Izu Iwueke

U of M student Izu Iwueke centers his research on finding a cure for colon cancer, a deadly disease that killed one of his college mentors. He recently was awarded the prestigious United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship.

As a boy, Izu Iwueke listened to his father's stories about men leaving Nigeria and finding success overseas. That inspired him: achieving good fortune in the United States became his childhood dream.

Now, after being awarded a prestigious $25,000 scholarship, Iwueke is focusing on his passion -- researching ways to cure colon cancer, a disease that killed one of his college mentors.

Iwueke has received the United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship, given annually to just 15 students around the country. The award is designed to increase the number of African-Americans in biomedical research careers.

The U of M's Department of Biology will receive $10,000 of the total while the remaining $15,000 goes toward tuition for Iwueke. In addition, Iwueke will receive a $10,000 stipend for a summer internship, which will be spent at a Merck research facility.

"I'm just grateful to God for the scholarship," says Iwueke, a junior biology major in the honors program at the U of M. "I want to make an impact in the field of medical science. I plan to use it wisely."

Iwueke's opportunity to leave Nigeria to pursue his dreams came only by chance. As Iwueke was nearing college age, his father won a visa lottery to come to the United States. A stipulation of the visa required Iwueke's family to leave their native land within three months, which didn't give the family much time to prepare.

Like many immigrants looking to attend college in America, Iwueke first had to put university studies on hold to help support his family when it first arrived. Once he began his studies, he still had to continue to work full time.

"It bothered me a little, but it was just what I had to do," he notes.

Iwueke says he was inspired by and learned much from his first mentor, Dr. Philip Browning, whom he became acquainted with while doing a summer internship at Vanderbilt University in the summer of 2003.

"He was the first minority physician scientist I met," Iwueke says. "He introduced me to research."

Browning, a former associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt's Ingram Cancer Center, died of colon cancer last year after inspiring the young immigrant student to achieve his goal of becoming a scientist. Iwueke's research concentration is now in colon cancer.

"He was like family to me," Iwueke says of Browning. "I knew he had cancer, but it still was a shock when he died."
Iwueke credits Dr. Michael Ferkin, a U of M associate professor of biology, with helping him hone his laboratory research skills.

"And he was instrumental in helping me receive the scholarship," Iwueke says.

Much like he has been assisted, Iwueke now has his own plans for helping people. After he graduates from medical school, he plans to work for the Food and Drug Administration while looking at ways to improve health care in Africa.

"I see a problem in the health-care system there and I want play a part in improving it," he says. "I also hope to someday provide scholarships to less privileged students and to motivate them to aim high."

Melinda Jones, director of the honors program at the U of M, says Iwueke won the scholarship because of his whole-hearted approach to pursing his dreams.

"Izu is already a dedicated and accomplished researcher ... his career goal is to become a physician-scientist performing cancer research, and I have no doubt that he will achieve this goal," she says.

Iwueke's story can be best described by what he wrote in applying for the scholarship, his friends in the honors program say.

Iwueke said, "The young boy who grew up in Nigeria dreaming that he might one day be able to help and heal others knows, too, that ultimately medical science is about people and what can be done to help them explore all of their possibilities."

(Portions of this story reprinted with permission of The Daily Helmsman.)


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