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Curiosity Has Often Gotten The Best Out Of Me – Cameroonian Scientist 

A young Cameroonian scientist, Emmanuel Nekongo, says curiosity remains the driving force in his success story. A post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, Dr. Nekongo is an inspiration to the youth. Passion, nurturing curiosity, staying focused, mentorship and cultivating the right kind of friends, says Nekongo in this exclusive interview, are some of the positive forces that drive a person to success and fulfillment.
Dr Nekongo is one of the 10 researchers in the US who were awarded the prestigious UNCF postdoctoral fellowships sponsored by Merck (a pharmaceutical company in the US) in 2015. He was recently interviewed by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), a US-based scientific organization….
Excerpts:

What is your current career position?

I am currently a UNCF/Merck postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My research in the Shoulders Lab at MIT is focused on studying how elements of the human host’s proteostasis network influence the evolutionary trajectories accessible to RNA viruses such as HIV. Understanding how the metazoan proteostasis machinery impacts protein evolution will help shed light on the molecular mechanisms utilized by pathogens like viruses to adapt and evade host responses as well as external pressures. This work has implications for understanding and preventing antiviral drug resistance development and designing new vaccine strategies. I am looking forward to wrapping up and publishing the first part of this story later this year, as I prepare to take the next steps in my career.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that helped you reach your current position?

Growing up in a very small community in rural Cameroon, I observed that for common illnesses, people relied mostly on the only resources available to them – traditional methods of healing. Intrigued by these observations, I enrolled in an undergraduate chemistry program after high school to learn about natural products chemistry. I was fortunate both in college and until now to have mentors who invested so much interest in me that I couldn’t afford to let them down. Mostly, it starts with having someone believe in you and be willing to guide you as and where necessary.

How did you first become interested in science?

I believe my curiosity has often gotten the best of me. Growing up in the village, we had a small power generator that I would often take apart, wondering how the electricity was made. By the end of elementary school I had mastered the mechanical section and could fix it when broken. Then I began to wonder how airplanes work and what could make something so huge float in the sky. There was no easy way of figuring this out…and it is not like nowadays where you can just Google it. So, I decided to attend a technical school and study aeronautic engineering, but my father would hear nothing of it and insisted that I follow the broad general education route, which I did.
In the first form of secondary school (approximately grade 6), I was selected to represent my school in a regional physics competition which was mostly experimental. I was so excited by the experience that after high school I applied for college admission in physics and mathematics, but instead got admitted to the Chemistry Department. Applications to Cameroonian universities go through a central system and students are admitted not necessarily to the department they apply to but instead to the department where they are deemed to be the best fit. I was initially uncertain, but remembering my old interests in the molecular basis of medicine and considering the opportunity to create new compounds using synthetic chemistry, I grew excited about pursuing a career in chemistry.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?

Of course! There is bound to be failure almost everywhere; otherwise, we would be living in utopia and not on earth. There isn’t enough room on a page to list the failures I have had…but, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Take the case of Abraham Lincoln for example, who had record failures and yet became one of America’s greatest leaders. My philosophy about failure is that, if I encounter it (or an obstacle), I will either tunnel through it, go around it, or climb over it. There will be no stopping me. Tenacity is helpful here.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?

A career in science can be exciting and challenging. First of all, try to determine what you want and then go after it. For some, figuring out what they want to do can be understandably difficult. But you have to be interested in whatever you choose to do…this is the driving force and should fuel your passion for the work you do, help you get up from the stumbles and keep labouring on. Identify and talk to the right people who can provide useful guidance. I don’t want to sound like a head teacher, but I would also advise that students be bold and choose their friends wisely. Someone once said, “Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are.”

What are your hobbies?

No time for hobbies! When I am not working, I play with my kids. I also enjoy fixing things a lot. My wife calls me the “home engineer” for good reason — I fix almost everything in our house.

What was the last book you read?

I recently read a chapter from Daisy Wademan’s nonfiction “Remember Who You Are.” However, the last book I read in full was “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, a nonfiction book by Jared Diamond given to me by Delta Pilot Jim White of Peachtree City, Ga. A documentary based on this book was produced by National Geographic and is available on YouTube.

Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?

My father, Andrew E. Nekongo, has only a 5th grade education but always placed so much emphasis on learning and excellence. At that time, it did not make any sense to me, but in retrospect, it certainly does. He is just one of my role models. Throughout my academic career, I have encountered friends, teachers and mentors who have inspired me in no small ways. In particular, I would like to commend my undergraduate mentor, Prof. George E. Nkeng, who took a candid interest in me, ensuring that I made it through the pipeline. Now when I look around and see students in similar or tougher situations than I was, students who keep on trying no matter what, students who defy all odds just to stay in class and parents who put in genuine efforts to send their kids to school, to these people, I say you are my heroes/heroines.

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?

It helps to think of exactly what you would like to achieve in a given period. I set a goal and make every effort to achieve it. However, goal setting is not very helpful if you are not passionate about the work you do…passion is what gets you to your goals in the first place, and what keeps you going every day!

By Yerima Kini Nsom & Ben NuweaEmmanuel Nekongo PH.D

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