Eclectic, bold, and fearless. Meet Oluwatoyin Asojo, a structural biologist at Hampton University, who is working to improve therapeutics for rare tropical diseases. Her scientific career began in her father’s research lab in Nigeria and has taken her around the world. Spanning multiple fields, Asojo blazed her own trail as an interdisciplinary researcher and worked in industry and government before carving out her niche in academia. Michael Hopkins spoke with Asojo about her compassion for helping people and mentoring the next generation of scientists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Ibadan, Nigeria
Education: BSc, Trent University, 1993; PhD, University of Houston, 1999
Current Position: Chair, chemistry and biochemistry, Hampton University
Go-to stress reliever: Nothing beats long walks in nature. After the first 2 mi, I have found solutions or new insights to nagging problems.
Best professional advice she’s received: Avoid saying yes or no right away. Instead, say, “I’ll think about it,” and do so. It avoids impulsive decisions and shows that you respect yourself and the other person.
Michael Hopkins: Could you tell me about your research?
Oluwatoyin Asojo: Broadly, my objective is to make therapeutics. I use structural biology, biophysics, and computation to study protein interactions with each other or with small molecules to design improved therapeutics.
MH: What diseases are you trying to treat with these therapeutics?
OA: I’ve done work on glioblastoma. When I was in industry, I worked primarily on HIV. Right now I’m working on vaccines and drugs for neglected pathogens, working on different diseases like leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis. Occasionally I collaborate with people in industry to work on cancer. I also have some collaborations for infectious diseases like malaria.
MH: Why did you choose this field—specifically, structural biology and drug development?
OA: It chose me. I really wanted to make drugs. So when I started grad school, my goal was to be an organic chemist and synthesize chemicals in the lab. Then my mentor allowed me to play with every project in the lab, and I chose to drop all the synthesis projects and work on the structural ones. My intent was never to become a crystallographer; it just happened.
MH: Your research sits at the interface of math, chemistry, biology, and computation. How has being an interdisciplinary researcher contributed to your success as a scientist?
OA: Oh, it’s everything. I think the ability to see connections where people don’t normally see connections is so important. When you’re able to think about problems from a bird’s-eye view rather than being stuck on the small, incremental aspects of it, you come up with solutions that people may think are crazy, but they end up being the best approaches. Of course you also fail a lot more, because you pursue crazy ideas. But in the process of failing, you find new directions that enhance your research.
MH: Can you tell me about your academic journey, starting from the very beginning?
OA: My academic journey started when I decided to run away from Nigeria—I’m joking! I was supposed to go to medical school, but I was fortunate enough to get a United World College (UWC) scholarship. I went to Pearson UWC and did my International Baccalaureate. Then I got another scholarship to go to Trent University in Ontario, where I double majored in chemistry and economics and minored in English. After that, I moved to Texas and did my PhD in chemistry at the University of Houston. Next I did a short postdoc at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland. After that, I went to industry briefly. I’ve been in different academic positions ever since.
MH: Your education has taken you all over the world. How have these different environments and perspectives contributed to your scientific career?
OA: One of the constants in my research is I don’t like doing projects that everybody is interested in. So I focused my research on neglected tropical diseases. Traveling, moving, and mixing with people have actually reinforced that idea, because there are all these diseases that affect so many people that don’t get the level of focus because nobody wants to study them, or there’s not enough funding.
MH: What motivates you to keep conducting research even when it is challenging?
OA: I know that if I don’t do it, the chances of somebody else doing it is slim to none.
MH: You mentioned that you’ve worked in academia, industry, and government throughout your career. Which is your favorite and why?
OA: By far, academia! One word: students. I think hanging around with people that still have that passion for learning keeps me excited to learn new things. I believe I’m not going to stop learning until I’m brain dead, so I like being around people that have that zest for life and that passion for science and that optimism. They’re not jaded.
MH: Yeah, I agree. I came into my first year of college thinking I was going to cure cancer.
OA: Uh-huh. I’m one of those people who believe that my role in academia is to nurture that belief students have. Who am I to say that the student standing in front of me is not the one that is going to cure cancer? My purpose is to be a catalyst for them to achieve that vision.
MH: Speaking of mentorship, your first scientific mentor was your father?
MH: That’s a unique experience. What was it like to be mentored in the lab by a parent?
OA: I’ll put it this way: my dad didn’t realize he was mentoring me; he thought I was just coming to hang around in the lab. I remember when I was in elementary school, after school, I would just wander over to his lab. And before long, when I was in middle school, I was coming over and helping with experiments. It was just fun, and it was a way to hang out with my dad.
MH: You and your colleagues at Hampton University recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to train and develop a diverse pool of undergraduate students. What was it like to conduct research at an HBCU [historically Black college or university]?
OA: Doing research at an HBCU is amazing because the students are hungry. They come with excellence in so many different areas that inform their science. Having the opportunity to nurture the intellectual growth of this pool of students is a privilege.
Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Education: BS, North Carolina Central University, 2018
Current Position: PhD candidate, biological chemistry, Johns Hopkins University, working in Seth Margolis’s lab
On caring for his plants: My lone survivor is a corn plant I’ve named Cornelius. He seems to be thriving, despite my negligence.
Dream vacation: Exploring South Africa