Department of Biochemistry
University of Lagos, Nigeria
Initially, Veronica Okochi’s scientific journey seemed on track to become another one of America’s immigration success stories.
She arrived in the United States in 1967 to begin her undergraduate studies, following in the tradition set by her two older brothers, both students at the University of Illinois. It was fortuitous timing for Okochi, as her native Nigeria was experiencing rising instability that would soon lead to civil war.
She enrolled at Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Ill., and studied chemistry, a topic she had excelled at in secondary school. She also received the chance to work in the lab of noted clinical chemist Norbert Tietz at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, where she became fascinated with the relationship between chemistry and diseases, and sought to continue her education in this area.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in 1971, Okochi completed her Master of Science degree in clinical biochemistry at the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School (today, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science), in 1974.
But at that point, Okochi made a big decision. “I chose to come home to Nigeria,” she says. “I knew it would not be easy, but I was inspired by the events I saw in the U.S. – the civil rights struggles and the teachings and hope of Martin Luther King. The civil war had ended, and Nigeria was rebuilding, and I had the zeal to give my service to my country.”
She found a job as a demonstrator (lecturer) in the biochemistry department at the University of Lagos, a staff position that also enabled her to pursue her doctoral degree. She began studying the membrane properties of the parasite Trypanosoma vivax, a serious livestock pathogen. “Trypanosome diseases not only cause tremendous human suffering in endemic areas, but they can render vast areas of grazing land unsuitable, causing serious economic and social consequences,” she explains.
Her hope was to gain more knowledge about the parasite’s biology and then explore the abundant medicinal flora in the region for potential antitrypanosomal agents. As Okochi completed her doctorate and rose to the rank of professor, her lab identified several promising trypanocides and conducted preliminary studies.
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s deficiencies in facilities and resources hindered the full-scale translation of her work for any commercial use. “The lack of infrastructure is a big challenge many Nigerian scientists face,” she says. “Our work does receive interest and sponsorship from more developed nations in those areas that have international dimensions, like HIV/AIDS and malaria, but that still leaves most of our research under-appreciated abroad.”