New virtual program pairs Nigerian students with UChicago scientists

Research initiative seeks to eliminate educational barriers by providing pathways and mentorship

In Ijoko, a town of about 16,000 in western Nigeria, Mariam Sanni’s family would gently tease her about her curiosity.

“It even turned into a joke at home, where everyone would say: If you hear 'What's that?', it's definitely Mariam,” said Sanni, now 22.

Her curiosity led to dreams of becoming a professor, which drove her to study chemical engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria. She will graduate this year, but the top-tier Ph.D. programs needed to advance her career aren’t available in her country— neither is the research experience. Many students outside of the United States face this frustrating quandary.

Seeing a need to bridge this educational research gap, UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Asst. Prof. Chibueze Amanchukwu piloted a distance learning research program that pairs Nigerian students with Pritzker Molecular Engineering faculty and post-doctoral mentors to develop their own research projects and careers called Research Experience for Nigerian Engineering Undergraduates, or RENEU.

“This experience was a game-changer,” said Sanni, one of five students in the pilot program that ran from last July to September.

Equity in science

Nigerian-born Amanchukwu said the lack of resources have impacts far beyond individual careers. This global pipeline problem gives wealthier, Western countries “dominance” in certain research areas, he said. And dominance by a few nations is particularly troubling if an issue impacts every nation.

In the case of Amanchukwu’s own work—developing better batteries for grid-level renewable energy storage and electric vehicles—that issue is climate change.

“As we transition to a renewable energy dominated economy, how do we ensure that developing nations also come along for the ride? The best way to do that is to train people,” said Amanchukwu.

RENEU aims to make that participation a reality by providing pathways for students such as Sanni. Using technology to overcome the physical barriers, RENEU had students meet regularly with PME faculty and mentors working from Chicago. The students gave their final presentation at the RENEU workshop held in person at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) campus in Nigeria. This was made possible through partnership with Professor Samson Adeosun and colleagues at UNILAG.

“What we’ve done with this program is learning from the pandemic and the fact you can actually do research in a virtual setting,” Amanchukwu said.

Each RENEU student was paired with a postdoc or graduate student mentor to work with them one-on-one.

“I’m from India, so I could understand their background,” PME postdoctoral fellow Ritesh Kumar said. “We do not have access to as many resources as we have here.”

Kumar served as mentor to University of Benin student Stanley Eshiemogie. Eschiemogie’s research project centered on using artificial intelligence to streamline the search for suitable battery electrolytes, dovetailing nicely with the work Kumar is doing in Amanchukwu’s lab.

Eshiemogie said the environment Kumar created made his project possible.

“Instead of a traditional teaching approach, our work felt more like a collaborative effort. I was actively encouraged to explore new concepts, experiment with new techniques and provide input,” Eshiemogie said. “This sense of responsibility and achievement was incredibly motivating and pushed me to take charge of my learning journey.”

Expanding the program

Through weekly workshop sessions, UChicago staff and educational consultants “Savvy Afro Success” also provided guidance to students on crafting CVs, writing strong statements of purpose, obtaining valuable letters of reference and the other work scientists must do outside of the lab to build a career.

Fortune Adekogbe graduated from the University of Lagos shortly before the program and is currently applying to graduate programs around the world, including PME. He found a workshop on Ph.D. career paths led by PME Director of Career Development Briana Konnick particularly insightful.

“It was inspiring to learn about the career options available to Ph.D. graduates and to see the many specific examples of individuals doing well in various fields,” he said.

The pilot class of RENEU was funded by UChicago Global and Amanchukwu’s own National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award. That funding will soon be bolstered by the Department of Energy's Early Career Award, allowing Amanchukwu and PME to provide more students the opportunities they need to succeed. In-kind support was provided by Savvy Afro Success.

“We did not anticipate how popular this would be. We only advertised once, and that was literally via LinkedIn posts and Twitter,” Amanchukwu said. “We posted about the opportunity just one time on a Friday night. We had 100 applications for five spots.”

Next year, Amanchukwu hopes to expand the program, opening the doors for more students to engineer a cleaner and more equitable future for all.

Applications are open until March 1.

—Adapted from an article first published by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.