It was the height of the pandemic when 17-year-old Ifedinma Agbatekwe walked up to the owner of a Shopper’s Drug Mart and asked to work in the pharmacy.
The time was coming for her to decide on a career path, and she felt she’d been advertised three options if she wanted to be a “success”: doctor, lawyer or engineer. None were the right fit, but doctor was closest, so she resolved to find her own way into health care. She landed a co-op placement in the pharmacy, and as wave after wave of COVID hit, she worked her way up to overseeing all asymptomatic testing. It was chaotic, she says. And she loved every minute.
“I really saw the impact a pharmacist can have, and I thought, ‘This is something I can see myself doing for a long time,’” she says.
With her sights set over the counter, she enrolled in U of T Scarborough’s molecular biology, immunology and disease program, with a double major in psychology. She’s now in her second year, and recently became the first winner of the Inclusive Excellence Award in Biological Sciences, launched by the Department of Biological Sciences.
“We know Black and Indigenous students are underrepresented in our biology student population, because of systemic racism and historically limited access to financial resources and networking opportunities,” says Ivana Stehlik, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and current chair of the EDI BioSci committee.
“This award was made to remove barriers Black and Indigenous students face, and help them feel heard, worry a little less financially, and to, very critically, benefit from networking with a research faculty as a member of their research lab.”
Three-quarters of all biology faculty members donated their own money to fund the award, which includes a year-long meal plan, $1,000, a paid research opportunity and one-on-one mentorship — in Agbatekwe’s case, with Professor Maydianne Andrade, a world-renowned evolutionary ecologist with a lab that investigates mating habits of black widows. Agbatekwe was willing to give spider research a try, but Andrade helped her find somewhere with a stronger connection to her goals.
Agbatekwe is now working in a lab dedicated to immunology research, run by Bebhinn Treanor, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Agbatekwe helps take care of the space, is learning fundamental techniques useful in any lab and attends daily meetings to keep up with the projects going on. Most are run by graduate students, and Agbatekwe has already embraced the chance to learn more than lab skills from them; they’ve recommended courses, discussed the pros and cons of graduate studies, recounted how they got into research and offered insights into their lived experiences as people of colour in academia.
Agbatekwe has brought that knowledge to her friends and peers, and to her work as a member of the campus’ Biology Students’ Association (BioSA) and the Bio Sci EDI Committee. She laughs as she says it, but she wants to “be like Oprah” for people of colour in science — someone who advocates, acts as a bridge for individuals and information, and widely distributes the tools needed to thrive.
“As Black individuals, one thing we lack is information about how to navigate our different options, because we don’t have a lot of people in this specific field,” she says. “If we know how to better navigate the spaces we’re in, we can succeed faster and we can succeed more.”
Agbatekwe is a long-time mentor herself. After immigrating to Oakville from Nigeria at age 13, she spent her high school years volunteering with the Big Brother, Big Sister program, which had her support elementary school students both with their academics and personal lives. She then joined the non-profit’s cultural mentorship program and worked specifically with Black students, so the Imani Black Academic Mentorship Program was a natural next step when she arrived at U of T Scarborough. Agbatekwe has since guided Black girls at a local high school, and became an assistant with the program.
“After George Floyd, I felt like I needed to focus more on Black students and helping them navigate the Black life, because it’s challenging,” she says. “Seeing someone who looks like you in the space you want to go in, sometimes that can be all the encouragement you need.”
She’s now applying for U of T’s doctor of pharmacy program, though she has no plans set in stone — just an overarching goal.
“When I do leave U of T Scarborough, I want to be able to say I made an impact, and see my impact,” she says.