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Interview with ASH Ambassador Oluwatoyosi Onwuemene, MD

Dr. Oluwatoyosi Onwuemene participates in the ASH Ambassador program, serving as a bridge between the Society, mentors, and trainees.

She is an Assistant Professor of Medicine-Hematology at Duke University School of Medicine and has clinical and research interests in hemostasis/thrombosis and therapeutic apheresis. Her long-term goal is to develop and run therapeutic apheresis multi-center trials with a focus on applications of therapeutic plasma exchange in thrombotic disorders.

Tell us a little bit about your background – your origins, your interests, your pastimes, and your achievements.

I was born in Nigeria into the family of a career diplomat. As a result, we lived internationally in various countries, including Madrid, Spain; Bissau, Guinea Bissau; London, England; and Kingston, Jamaica. While my family lived in Jamaica, in 1999, I moved to the United States to go to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. Within the first 3 months of starting at Wesleyan, my father died. His death brought an end to life in Jamaica and I chose to make the United States my new home.

I most enjoy writing. As a child, a writing career was my ultimate dream. However, well-meaning family members thought it best that writing be a backup career. Fortunately, writing is an important part of my life as a physician. Nonetheless, I like to find other unique writing opportunities. I recently published my first children’s book, My Hair is Beauty.

I love to read. I scarcely find time now to sit with a good book, so I listen to audiobooks. In the last year, I’ve mostly listened to audiobooks in the non-fiction genre. My best “listens” in the last month are Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

As a college student, I won the following honors: Munroe Math and Science Scholar; Claire Boisfeuillet Jones Prize in Biology; Lise Meitner Award in Physics; Division of Science and Mathematics Outstanding Senior Award; Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society; Mortar Board National Senior Honor Society; Phi Kappa Phi Collegiate Honor Society; the Wesleyan Woman of Success Award; and was a Magna cum Laude graduate. I was also International Club President; a Biology 101 teaching assistant; a peer advisor; and a volunteer student teacher for the Kids in Science Mathematics and Engineering Technology program that brought “science experiments in a box” to students in Bibb County, Georgia.

As a medical student, I was a member of the Student National Medical Association planning committee for our Annual Martin Luther King Dinner Event. As a resident, I won the Lecoq Award for Outstanding Senior Assistant Resident Talk. During my hematology/oncology fellowship training, I was selected to the ASH Clinical Research Training Institute (ASH-CRTI). As a faculty member, I won the 2016 Excellence in Education Award, was a selected fellow of the Professional Mentoring Skills Enhancing Diversity (PROMISED) Program, and winner of the 2018 Wesleyan College Young Alumna Award.

Tell us more about your career.

I went to medical school at Duke University, did my internal medicine residency training at Duke University Medical Center, and my hematology/oncology fellowship training at the McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University. I received a Master of Science in Clinical Investigation from Northwestern University and am now an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Duke University.

What made you want to study medicine?

When I was younger, I thought about a career in medicine and felt that being a physician would mean that I could be the boss (my older sister was always bossing me around). However, as I matured, I really enjoyed biology and chemistry and wanted to “help people,” so I felt that medicine would be a good fit.

What brought you to the field of hematology?

My father died from complications of cancer, so, in medical school, I thought I would become an oncologist. In line with my interests, I was paired with a mentor, Dr. Laura DeCastro (now a lifetime mentor and current ASH ambassador). Until I met her, I had never even heard of hematology as its own unique field. But the more time I spent in her clinics, the more I fell in love with hematology. It is a great field, and I may have never come to it if not for Laura’s influence.

What influenced your pathway to leadership?

I had my first leadership opportunities when I went away to a girls’ boarding school in Nigeria, Regina Pacis Secondary School, at the age of 12. I was appointed Refectory Prefect and ultimately rose in the ranks to become Senior Prefect, a position I held until I graduated in 1997. When I was a student at Wesleyan College, I had many opportunities for leadership, including becoming International Club President. Being International Club President was my favorite leadership role. I most enjoyed working with a diverse group of women from all over the world to lead initiatives that would educate our community about our individual countries.

Why is diversity important to you?

Diversity matters to me because, when it is present, it speaks to an inclusive and respectful environment. When I was deciding on where to go for Medical School, I chose to go to Duke University because, when I interviewed, it was the one institution where I could see people who looked like me in leadership. At the time, Dr. Brenda Armstrong was Associate Dean of Admissions, and seeing her occupy a prominent role at a prestigious academic medical center inspired me that there was a path to leadership. So, no matter how challenging things became in the course of my medical training, I would remind myself that she made it and so could I. Drawing on that experience, I realize that we send messages to our trainees when we don’t have diversity in leadership. We say, “You are welcome as a trainee, but you don’t get to be a leader here.” Lack of diversity in leadership can be an important barrier to recruiting and retaining the best trainees.

Why is diversity important to hematology?

Diversity is important to the hematology workforce because it allows hematology to harness the strengths of all people and all races. We each bring diverse experiences to the table that affect the way we interpret science. Being intentional about fostering and promoting diversity in hematology will ensure that our biggest scientific breakthroughs will be relevant to the communities we serve.

Tell us more about your efforts to promote diversity in hematology.

The field of hematology is one of the greatest in the world. While I acknowledge that I am terribly biased, I am saddened that it doesn’t get enough press in the non-hematology world. As a medical student, I did not know of or contemplate a career in non-malignant hematology until I met Laura. So, I feel that one of the most important things that I do is to tell as many trainees as I know about the field.

I give talks about hematology at community events and at local churches. After my talks, I frequently have young people come talk to me about hematologic disorders that have affected their families. Knowing that there may be a way to bring change through hematology inspires hope. Inspiring hope through hematology is my goal.

View the profiles of two other outstanding ASH Ambassadors, Dr. Rahma Warsame and Dr. Laura De Castro.