Ijeoma Nnadozie

Nigerian PhD Student Ijeoma Nnadozie Examines Functional Variants in Colorectal Cancer Among African Americans

Like many Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) students, Ijeoma Nnadozie, PhD ’24, has had a passion for medicine and initially wanted to be a medical doctor from an early age.

“Growing up, I had many health challenges and was in and out of the hospital a lot,” Nnadozie said. “I started to appreciate doctors—how they saved lives—and understand the importance of the healthcare system.”

The more she learned about medicine, the more she became fascinated with biology. She discovered that every medical issue starts with the most basic unit of human life—the cell.

“This microscopic organism is so powerful and controls everything that happens within the bigger system,” Nnadozie said.

This led her to the University of Lagos in her home country of Nigeria, where she studied Cell Biology and Genetics. Now in KGI’s Doctor of Philosophy in Applied Life Sciences (PhD) program, she is studying Functional Genomics and Personalized and Population-Based Medicine.

She is working alongside Dr. Barbara Fortini—the Program Director for KGI’s Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genomic Data Analytics program—in Fortini’s laboratory. Nnadozie’s research focus is identifying functional risk variants in colorectal cancer, specifically within African American populations.

“The incidence and mortality of colorectal cancer vary by sex, race, and ethnicity, with African Americans recording the highest incidence and mortality,” Nnadozie said. “So, it’s important for us to understand why we have these variations and genetic heterogeneity in the African American population.”

Characterization of risk variants and their relationship in genes known to increase susceptibility to colorectal cancer will help the medical community better understand inherited colorectal cancer risk within African Americans and identify the drivers of this genetic disparity observed between African Americans and other ethnicities.

Nnadozie is grateful for the extensive resources at KGI, which have enabled her to put her knowledge into practice.

“In Nigeria, I obtained much theoretical knowledge, but most of the resources that are available here in the U.S. are not available back home due to lack of funding,” Nnadozie said. “I got frustrated a lot whenever I read articles from high impact journals and learned about the experiments they conducted in the quest to seek answers to existing and persistent diseases, antibiotics resistance, and viral mutations that threaten human existence and further limit us from living and enjoying life to the fullest.”

“Coming to KGI and having access to well-equipped labs makes a huge difference in my academic career and enhances my enthusiasm in research.”

Moving to a new country, leaving her friends and family in Nigeria, and adapting to America’s culture and education system have been challenging for Nnadozie. However, KGI’s international student loans and scholarship funding have helped relieve much of the financial burden, and the faculty members have been welcoming and accommodating, particularly Dr. Animesh Ray.

“I appreciate how Professor Ray took time to tutor me in the classes I had missed initially and made sure that I understood what was going on in his class,” Nnadozie said. “He was so patient with me and has provided me with all the support I needed during my first few months here at KGI as an international student and continues to support me today. He has also been there through the trying times I experienced as a graduate student.”

Additionally, Dr. Jane Rosenthal—Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the Henry E. Riggs School of Applied Life Sciences—has been supportive on both an academic and personal level.

“She highlighted my strengths and weaknesses and showed me how to take advantage of my learning style to navigate and succeed in the United States educational system,” Nnadozie said. “Also, being so far from home, some days were hard, and she was always there for me. I call her ‘Mama’ because she’s like a mother figure to me here at KGI. In general, everyone at KGI, including faculty and non-faculty members, has been so welcoming, friendly, and supportive.”

Nnadozie plans to continue conducting genomics research and working at the forefront of drug discovery and precision medicine when she eventually goes back to Nigeria.

“I want to understand what drives certain diseases back home,” Nnadozie said. “I always say that Africa has much-unlocked research potential and genomic database. Once we understand the foundation, we can understand why these variations occur with the African American population and then compare the findings with different world populations.”

Fortini is excited to work with Nnadozie on this research.

“Ijeoma is my first PhD student, and I am honored that she trusted me to be her advisor through this process,” Fortini said. “I appreciate the passion and perspective that she brings to our research lab. She has already pushed me to explore new colorectal cancer risk research areas, which shows that science is much more exciting when it is a collaboration. I look forward to seeing how far Ijeoma can take her project and grow her skills over the next few years.”