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Evelyn Okeke

College: College of Staten Island
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2015

Chasing Stars Biologically

Evelyn Okeke wants to spend her life conducting biological research at the highest level - and if she has her way, it will literally be at the highest level: in space.

Okeke (College of Staten Island, B.S., Biology, minors in Chemistry and Biochemistry, '13), received a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support doctoral research in Rutgers University's Biochemistry Program.

She investigates a specific protein that functions in DNA repair and the primary process that most cells use to clean away unneeded or damaged proteins. "Discovering what it is that allows this protein to repeatedly shuttle between the cell’s nucleus and cytoplasm would improve our understanding of nuclear protein turnover [that is, the how cells keep house] and facilitate new research that could alleviate human disease outcomes," she explains.

Born and raised in Germany by a German mother and a Nigerian father, she came to the United States in 2009 to attend college. Attracted by Staten Island's semi-rural setting, she happily found that the College of Staten Island had "an outstanding biology program." She studied in CSI's Verrazano School selective honors program and graduated as co-valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA..

Her undergraduate research with biology professor Abdeslem El Idrissi factored prominently in two book chapters about the function of taurine, a nonessential amino acid, and its role in blood pressure and vasoactivity (the constriction or dilation of blood vessels).

She appeared at several scientific meetings. Her first presentation at a global forum was the 18th International Taurine Meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2012. That summer, she interned in the Department of Protein Science at Merck & Co. and studied on scholarship in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. In the summer of 2011, she worked as a research assistant in the lab of cell biologist Douglas Robinson at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In the summer of 2013, she had a neuroscience research internship in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.

Among other scholarship, fellowships and grants, in 2012 Okeke received a $25,000 United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship Award, one of just 15 awarded that year. She also received an honorable mention from the federal Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship competition.

All this is prelude to her dream job: Flying into space with either NASA or the European Space Agency after she earns her doctorate. "I'm totally fascinated with space, and I'd love to get an internship at NASA, which has top-notch scientists." If she doesn't make it into space, she notes that "NASA labs do a lot of exciting research that I would love to be part of."

With her National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Okeke may be a step closer to liftoff. The award is the most prestigious for graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This federal grant provides $138,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.