I think, therefore I EMPOWER
Meet Clinton Global Initiatives Scholar Karen Udoh ‘18
Major/Department and Exp. Grad Date:
Biology May 2018
Research and academic interests:
Cancer research, and social justice issues like health literacy and access to adequate healthcare
What sparked your interest in studying biology, and how does that coincide with your humanitarian and social justice interests?
My decision to study biology in the College of Arts & Sciences stemmed mostly from being exposed to a science- and health-oriented atmosphere early on in my upbringing. My dad is dean of computer science at Sullivan University and my mom is a registered nurse at University of Louisville hospital. So they both introduced me to the technological side and medicinal sides of science. I ultimately found my interests were more in the health-oriented side. It was mostly due to a trip I took to Nigeria when I was 8 years old.
My parents grew up in Nigeria and they wanted us to experience the culture and life of their home country. The healthcare system in Nigeria is quite inadequate and very expensive for most people. My mom uses her nursing training to give both sides of the family checkups when we visit. During one visit, when she was checking blood sugar levels, she realized my grandmother's level was over 400. At that point my grandmother could have dropped dead or fallen into a coma. Seeing my mother save her life by using the skills she gained from nursing made me want to pursue a career in medicine. I wanted to be able to help those who are suffering and may not be able to receive fair access to healthcare.
In college I began to see how much of a role social justice plays in our healthcare system. I went out of my way to take part in social justice programs like the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars program and the Muhammad Ali Scholars Program. In those programs, I learned more about issues involving race, poverty, fair wages, and environmental injustice, and began to understand why we have so much disparity and inequality among different groups. These disparities are especially seen in our healthcare system
Viewing the world with a social justice lens allows you to see the root causes of many problems. For example, if you have a patient that is repeatedly getting the same illness you can look at environmental and social facets of her life to understand where problems are coming from. All doctors should look beyond immediate factors and take into account how poverty, environment, and stress impact health.
What is your area of focus in biology? Why?
I'm most interested in cellular biology, especially immunology. I find how one's body responds to different infections and how it combats them incredibly fascinating. In these areas, you can begin to understand how diseases come about and research ways to combat them.
What did you do as a Clinton Global Initiatives Scholar? How did that impact and add to your undergraduate education?
Last spring, I attended the Clinton Global Initiatives University for my project Omit the Silence: Stand Up for Equality. This project was something that I accomplished while I was the diversity chair for the Student Activities Board. It was about starting a conversation on campus about stereotypes and how they continue to perpetuate divisions between various groups. It included a project where students wrote hurtful things people have said to them or words that they identified with but that society views as negative. This project entailed students coming together and understanding how we should embrace our differences and accept one another for who we are.
With the Clinton Global Initiatives University, I was able to present this project to various students around the world who are also starting their own initiatives to effect change. The conference is meant to inspire students to make positive changes in their own communities and to do work they are passionate about in their daily lives. We were able to hear different global leaders and activists discuss the work they do and how they pursued their goals.
The program contributed to my undergraduate education by inspiring me to continue to give back to my community and to find ways to galvanize students to effect change. It has inspired me to get more actively involved in social justice movements and create a safe space on this campus where students feel that they belong and are wanted. It is why a group of my friends and I started a new RSO called Voices in Action. Voices in Action will submit a list of demands that we as students believe are important for our administration to take on to make UofL more inclusive and welcoming to marginalized students. It is galvanizing students to create solutions to the problems that they see on this campus in order to make their voices heard.
Tell me about a specific project that you consider to be the most significant in your undergraduate career thus far. Why that one?
This year, I helped a couple of students with the Die-In demonstration that happened on the SAC Ramp. I felt that was definitely a powerful moment on this campus because it unified many students to see what is happening in the black community due to police brutality and other injustices in the justice system. I believe it was symbolically powerful because it showed how many students are impacted by this issue.
More than 200 students participated in the demonstration and many of them lay down on the floor to represent the black people killed due to police brutality. It was a visual way for students to express themselves peacefully while bringing awareness to the issue. My video has over 70,000 views on Facebook and it definitely shook up the UofL community, forcing people to see what many have to deal with on a daily basis. It's quite traumatizing to see people that look like you just dropping dead anytime they encounter the police. It empowered students to not be silent and to make sure people see what they have endured for centuries.
It was the success of the Die-In that helped form Voices in Action. We saw how the demonstration brought all types of people to participate and we believe that at least at a smaller scale we can bring about positive change on the UofL campus.
You are involved in a number of other committees, programs, and groups on campus. What drives your involvement, and what are your goals for your campus and community?
I enjoy learning. I enjoy meeting new people and pushing myself out of my comfort zone in order to see things from different perspectives. That’s why I don't just involve myself with things related to science, but I branch out to try to experience more of my community.
I want to understand social justice issues. I believe it's important to travel and speak more than one language, so that we are more connected with each other. It is vital to give back to your community and to do what you can to help it improve and grow.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.
My parents are my role models. They have shaped me into to the person I am today through the values that they instilled throughout all the years of my life. They tell me every day to never forget where I came from. I should always remember my roots and have pride in myself and my culture. A lot times when people point you out as the “other,” you feel embarrassed and try to assimilate for acceptance. My parents taught me to love myself for who I am and to always strive for excellence. Even if I don't reach my goals fully, I know in my heart that I did my best and I gave my fullest effort.
Yet, they also taught me to recognize the value in helping others. We can't go through life without giving back to those who have not had the same privileges and circumstances we did. It is why I try to empower others to believe in their capabilities and see the impact they make. It is because of my parents that I continue to keep going even if the obstacles seem impossible to overcome and also to make sure I lend a hand to those around me.
What's the one thing about you few people know?
Few people know that I'm very shy. It takes a lot out for me to get out of my comfort zone. That’s why I get involved – to learn from others, become more comfortable sharing my beliefs, and not shying away from expressing who I really am.
Plans for the future?
I hope to enter medical school and become a medical doctor. I'm not completely sure what field, but I'm interested in oncology and cardiology.
Finish this sentence: I think, therefore I EMPOWER.