There’s no better achievement than one that brings change in one’s environment. Achievement that is fulfilment is one that benefits the community as a whole and adds value to people beyond yourself to make a positive difference in your immediate environment.
On this episode of the Celebrating Women Campaign, we celebrate an outstanding young woman, who is a selfless achiever and whose observations of the environment drove her to try to solve some of Nigeria’s health issues. Dr. Opeyemi Awofeso has written at least 17 papers in different areas of medicine, including breast and cervical cancer in Nigerian Women, on different topics in surgery, paediatrics and oncology, which she has presented in different countries.
In partnership with The Nigerian Child Initiative, she facilitated a project to immunise 2000 children against Tetanus for free. She is also the Founder of Research Hub, a burgeoning Research Company poised to provide medical research solutions to NGOs and other organisations.
BACKGROUND INTO RESEARCH
I ask Opeyemi Awofeso to tell me about herself and her foray into hard core medical research and she says ,
‘My name is Opeyemi Awofeso and I am a Medical Doctor, but beyond medicine I am a Research Enthusiast and Childhood Cancer Advocate. Research started for me in my 500 level, where as part of our education, each person had to present a research paper. However, I always had it mind that I was going to do something related to cancer, because my Godmother died of cancer and it was quite traumatic for me. Another experience that catalysed my desire for research were my first few days in paediatrics, when I was in 400 level and 4 children died of Tetanus. It was really a shock to me, because I didn’t think tetanus was fatal. I didn’t think children still died of it. Each day I went on call, it was a case of having to do CPR. When I entered 500 level as part of our university education, we had to do research into a disease and find out why was killing people. For my research questions, it was going to be tetanus or cancer. I submitted my topics, but I couldn’t get the tetanus topic, so I just let it go to focus on cancer. I also realised then that when you get into 500 level, people did not necessarily have to do the research work well. You just compiled questions, and invented numbers. Even if people were going to do it well, it was about going to the community and sharing questionnaires. There was no quality research. I decided I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t want to work in the community. I was going to work with real patients with real problems. I chose breast and cervical cancer because those were the most common, but it was still very difficult. The department kept saying I needed to go out, but I got an amazing supervisor. She stood her ground and let me do what I wanted to do. So I investigated over why more Nigerian women died of breast and cervical cancer, even though we don’t get as much as Caucasian women. If there were 100 women that got breast cancer, blacks would be a mere 10. But if at the end of that year, 100 people died, they would all be black people. I wanted to know if there was something in black people that triggered that. I mean, we know there are social factors and poverty, but it has never been really itemized officially. So, when I concluded my dissertation, my supervisor sent me a link to apply for a conference in the Netherlands and it was like a joke. I got in and traveling was very difficult with school and running around for resources. Eventually my friend and I travelled. I got there and saw 200 level students doing genetic sequencing. It was a shock.’
DIFFERING RESEARCH APPROACHES
I ask Opeyemi to elaborate on the differences in the approach to research in Nigeria, in comparison to other cases she has seen and she says,
‘It was so humbling because most of the
research in my class entailed KAP Knowledge Attitude and Practice. You just ask “Do you wash your hands?” It was the same question every year. LOL. So, I felt that my research project was really good. But it was humbling, because at 200 level, foreign medical students had their lecturers supporting them and financing them and they didn’t have to struggle. To defend my project was really difficult because I was getting the “Who do you think you are?” vibe. This is not the approach in countries with advanced research frameworks. Lecturers support their students and these students are running a research project for 5 years and nobody is sitting on their projects. They are coming up with data and it is really making a difference. Evey protocol is specialized and is not just extrapolated to suit any random project. They have conducted research for every decision they make for every patient, while we then get that data online and want to apply it to our own patients and environment. But it doesn’t really work. We as Nigerians and black people have our own peculiarities. It means that the way you counsel a white person is different from the way you counsel a black person. For a white person you are probably thinking …with this diagnosis of yours, you are going to die if you don’t treat it…But for a black person, you are contending with village, and faith sensibilities. There are a lot of peculiarities involved in our
environment. I came back with a clearer idea of what I wanted to do in medical research.’
WORK WITH NGOS
Ope talks about her experience volunteering her research services for medical personnel and NGOs explaining,
‘I started volunteering my research services to Medical Consultants. I realised that there were consultants who did quality research. It’s just that they either bully students into doing it and they don’t pay you or sometimes they pay you. For the first few ones, I
was thrown off when professors came on the case, but I took it as part of the learning process.
A year later, I had the opportunity to follow up with my Tetanus Research, when I signed up for The Nigerian Child Initiative and I was part of a community outreach to vaccinate 2000 children against tetanus for free. I conducted research into why these children were dying and I realised that it wasn’t because they were not vaccinated. In Nigeria, we get vaccinated for Tetanus, and we realised that almost 80% of the children were actually vaccinated. The thing was that they should have gotten a renewal or booster when they were 5. But our National Free Schedule (MPH) only covers the first year of life. So at that age, they are no longer covered. We spoke to NAFDAC and the community
leaders and I found that to effect change was difficult. They did not want us to go to the community to make them look like they were not doing their jobs. They had vaccines sitting in coolers that did
not get to the children because they were understaffed. We offered man power but they did not want this finding to be recorded because they did not want to be looked at as inefficient. So, the whole situation involved having to lie in order to get certain vaccines. There was a lot of beauraucracy and politics.’
Ope goes on to explain further on NGOs,
‘What I do is to volunteer for NGOs and I had to stop after a while, because I realised that not all those NGOs actually really care. Most of them start up thinking about the selfless things they were created for, but there is a lot of money in non profit. So, if you get a grant of x amount you can spend y amount on the people. Even for those NGOs that are not this way, it’s all about the “It makes me look good” vibe. It sort of helps your career when everyone knows you are the owner of this NGO . So, I had to take a step back for a while. I was able to identify some outstanding NGOs. TNCI-The Nigerian Child Initiative, which provides free health services for everything that had to do with children. The Biocon Foundation as well, pays for treatment with regard to breast and cervical cancer. I believe they are making a difference. Currently, I work with The Dorcas Cancer Foundation. They are a childhood cancer foundation. They pay for treatment and all that.
A lot of cancer organizations do awareness. But people know about the diseases campaigned against, they still get it and they still die, meaning the awareness programmes are not making a difference. This is the place of research. If you are doing something and it is not working, you have to check it.
For me, research has been great because you are finding answers. I like puzzles.’
I ask about certain challenges she faced in her research career, and she outlines them thus,
‘Because of the kind of background I had, I am not intimidated by challenges. I like puzzles. When life is even going so smoothly I ask myself where is the challenge. Lol. For medical research, the challenge is that a lot of people are not interested in it and some of those who might be interested people misunderstand the purpose of research. They just think that it is an avenue to make money. Research should be an avenue to get answers that would be
of benefit to society. Of course, there is always the challenge of of human interractions, funds and managing change. At every milestone, I was met with the obstacle of the “This is how we do things” mindset. I had presented my undergraduate project in 2 countries and published it, and it was still an issue defending my project in Nigeria, with unneccesary kickbacks. Students didn’t usually present their projects abroad first. So right now, I am encouraging a lot of people to submit their projects to links for a chance to present them abroad. Thankfully, quite a lot of people have presented their projects in conferences abroad after me. This is great exposure and they realise other people are doing great things and they can do it too. My defence project was like a vendetta against me and it did not need to be that way, but quite a lot of people are set in their ways. A lot of people also had a problem with my idea to vaccinate 2000 children for free. But I had the whole weight of TNCI behind me, and I pitched it to them. This is why it is important not try to do everything on your own and from scratch. There are so many platforms that you can stand on. When I was speaking to the Founder of TNCI, he was thinking the same thing because he had a similar experience. He already had a platform, so it was much easier for us to apply to get the vaccines. Starting from scratch is difficult. The Tetanus Campaign was online, on radio and finally was topped with the vaccination in the Idi-Araba Community. We faced challenges of the community requiring us to lie to get the vaccines. But we learned to be diplomatic,
without compromising our standards. Set out your goals and core values and be unflinching.’
I ask Opeyemi to explain how she employs leadership in achieving her goals for her different organizations and she expatiates,
‘As much as possible, I lead by showing people results-showing people what is indeed possible. I learnt earlier on that you can’t keep feeding people with the “This is where we are going” line . Of course, some people will follow you. But you can’t just expect people to take you by your word. You are the one who really sees a picture of where you are going. If you want people to make a change, you have to show them. In Nigeria, we are not necessarily at the forefront in a lot of ways and we have a lot of challenges. Having to lead a group of people who are older than I am would always be an issue. So, when I was starting Research Hub, it was very difficult. But I had to get to a point of not stressing. I’ve been doing it unofficially for over 2 years. I kept saying I wanted to do this, but nobody was seeing what I saw, so they were not following me. What I had to do was work on myself. I made sure I published all my papers and I showed people that I knew exactly what I was talking about. I had to show people that Research is a viable career option. It was much easier to show people than to just tell them. So, people are more astounded by my achievements than when I had nothing to show my desire for research. You have to show people where you are going.’
I ask Opeyemi Awofeso about any other inspiration that has driven her career path, and she gives even more background about how she decided she was going to study medicine,
‘For me, I am intellectually gifted. I feel like it is the same for my classmates. I was top of my class in high school. I just needed a challenge. I spoke a lot and represented my state in debates. I wanted to do law. But my God Father suggested medicine because it would give me the platform to find something I love and do something better with it. For research, it was my supervisor who was a tremendous help and my biggest inspiration.’
NUANCES FOR SUCCESS
With everyone of Opeyemi’s projects, it is not difficult to surmise that she is a type A personality, and she explains,
‘There are certain people that stand out and rise up to leadership, whether or not you like it. Type A people usually have that advantage. Everywhere I go, even when I am not trying, I just am chosen. Some things are easier. I apply for Youth Ambassadorships and stuff and it is easier to be chosen for those kinds of things when you are all over the place and speaking at events, but that is not to say that non type A people are disadvantaged. They might not be the head of a team, but they are relevant. I was telling my friend this week that the concept of individuality
is something a lot of people do not emphasize. I see a lot of quotes, tweets and fliers about being your own boss and entrepreneurship. As much as that is great, I feel that we underemphasise the fact that there are people who are built to make a team work. My business partner is like that. I think I am one of them as well. If you give me an idea, in 10 seconds I can demolish it and tell you what works and what doesn’t. I can
basically make an idea better and richer. I used to think it was a disadvantage. I used to think about how all of my friends were starting up NGOs and doing this and that, and I would always ask myself when was I going to do my own? Even Research Hub just came by inspiration. But I am saying that it’s not everybody that is supposed to do their own big thing. There are some people whose gifts are being in a team and by virtue of that, the team is better. It doesn’t make you any less than the
person who came up with the idea. And as much as Type As have their strengths, they also have their weaknesses. They could sometimes have their loud and unproductive moments. I am saying that to overcome the natural disadvantage of my kind of personality, all I do is I surround myself with those
who have what I don’t. So, if you are somebody who likes her own company -type c- your goal should not be to focus on something is not your strength. Don’t bend yourself backwards to be that.
Sometimes, you should take courses online to be better at certain things. But create a team for yourself. Tech companies are usually started by the nerd who might probably be a bit anti-social, but they surround themselves with people who can do the talking. There are so many courses one can take to better yourself…data analysis, spss, designing etc. I learnt them on YouTube. I later on took certified courses online, but the certified courses didn’t exactly teach me the skills I needed. So, it would be your fault if you don’t get better skills. There are opportunities to better yourself. Identify your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who have them as a strength.’
MOTIVATIONS AND INSPIRATION
I ask Ope about her motivations generally and the inspiration for Research Hub and she says,
‘I am always doing something, and even when I am resting, I’m thinking “Shouldn’t I be doing something?” But I had to ask myself at the end of the day what I achieved and what I did not achieve. I think that is where Research Hub came from. I just realised I was just busy but not productive. I was running 100 projects at the same time. Currently, I have 6 studies going on and that is with trying to work my start up, which I didn’t even mean to start. I actually put up a teaser saying “Interested in research? Join us.” It was merely meant to sensitise people about research, but I got a lot of feedback and even had to turn off my phone. I am a very busy person but sometimes, it does not come with a lot of productivity. That is what a lot of NGOs lack. They are getting a lot of grants and they have a lot of programmes, with many people in attendance but there is no behavioural
change. Research Hub caters to research solutions that would bring effective change in the community.
After publishing my 17 papers, I was able to build a niche for myself and I got called by professors and other clients a lot. I had to turn down jobs because of my other commitments. Still, a lot of people wanted me to do their
projects, regardless of the level of difficulty. But because of my niche, I was able to restrict my research tasks to analysis. The Research Hub seeks to provide research solutions to clients, and there are 2 entry points. You are either a class member or a client, which are usually NGOs.’
WORK VERSUS PRODUCTIVITY
I ask Ope to elucidate on the difference between work and productivity and how she ensures the latter in her research projects, and she elucidates,
‘With my projects, I have to take stock and ask myself which of them have been truly effective/productive. First of all, I ask myself how many of them should I be doing? What is the result/goal? I do this everyday. When I have meetings with people, I need them to give me KPIs and report back within a decimated time frame. Anything that proves ineffective, we cut out. It sort of helps me organise my projects and it has helped my health too. I was always so tired. Being a doctor is quite tasking, and I don’t believe my job as a doctor should suffer because of the other things I’m doing. It was one of the things I prayed for when I was coming in as a House Officer. I did not want to snap at patients demanding my attention at 10pm just because we are short staffed. Those were the things I saw my seniors do and I didn’t want to follow that pattern. So, time management and creating actionable goals are very important for me in order to achieve everything I want to achieve.
I also had to learn how to say no to a lot of people. I had to surround myself with people who were great at saying no, because I wasn’t so great at it. I also had to learn to say no politely.’
THE GOD FACTOR
I ask Ope the role God plays in her life and she muses,
‘For me He is my motivation. I never want to get to that point where I am so successful just or even broken down that I think I don’t need God. I don’t want to be motivated by my salary to
be more polite or better with staff. I don’t want money or any other thing to be my motivation. I believe I should do my best, whether they pay me well or not. So, I pray through these things.’
I ask Opeyemi about her ability to create opportunities where they do not exist and how she sharpened this skill, and she sheds light as follows,
‘I have come from a place of not having much. I had to work through school-I got scholarships.I didn’t come from a well to do family. I’ve had to be an adult since when I was a teenager. I wanted to do certain things, like get into university. I would ask myself …”How can I do this?” I would get a scholarship. I wanted to do my elective in the UK, and I asked myself “How do I go about this?” I got places to apply to. I have had to do all of this
because I needed to do them. It was almost like nothing was handed over to me. I always had where I was coming from at the back of my mind. I have had to look for opportunities where they
didn’t exist. I’ve had to work for every meal I got. Research Hub was an opportunity for me to earn money, even though it didn’t start out that way. I was happy to volunteer my services for free and feed my interest in new areas of research. But it was quite fulfiling to have professors reward me with monetary compensation for a job well done.’
Opeyemi gives insight into processes of Research Hub as follows:
‘Research Hub uses existing technological platforms to connect class members with Clients. Young Career Researchers specify their research
interests and we match them to clients to earn money and sharpen their research skills. We also provide security for the students, so they are well paid. There is also a rating system and we do monitoring and evaluation, package and send the reports to the clients. We also do trainings such as Excel, Powerpoint and Design as well as mentorship etc. I have a business partner that runs the Hub with me. With start ups, people like to request huge funds to begin, but we just did everything ourselves. We used online platforms and did graphics and design ourselves. We realised we wanted very user friendly platforms.’
With her strong suit in medical research, I am almost sure Ope has picked out her residency specialty, but she says,
‘No, not really. I don’t even want to do my residency now. A lot that one does in research is academic, so I want to do a PhD first, in Clinical Research. Every milestone we have reached in medicine was by research. Either someone accidentally fell on it while looking for something else. Research is the basis for our communications. It is the basis for our drugs. When I first started, I didn’t have a lot of papers in different places. For me, it was about finding out what I liked. As my interest grew, I wrote papers in Women and Surgery, Paediatrics, Microbiology, Oncology etc. Research gives you a lot of opportunities. We can work on implementation of policies. I am pausing on clinical medicine for a while.’
Ope gives this advice for aspiring medical professionals,
‘Do more research. Research shouldn’t be about promotion or graduation. When I tell people I have written 17 papers, they say stuff like “You are entering as a lecturer 2.” It’s not about that. We can’t keep hoping for better discoveries when we are not taking any action. If we want a difference, we can’t keep extrapolating data from the West. We need to come up with our own data. Also, key into platforms and it doesn’t have to be from the scratch. So, they use this kind of gadget in the UK to solve a particular problem. You would just have to keep begging and begging to raise money to buy the gadget in Nigeria. But what can we use in our immediate environment to achieve results applicable to our own people? Let us think ourside the box. It’s not just about making money. Don’t just be busy. Be productive.’
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