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Kelechi Ndukwe

College: Lehman College
Awards: Other, 2011; Other,

Getting to the Root of Stem Cells

Stem cells work like magic, having the capability of transforming themselves into any other type of cell in the body. But how do they know how to perform that trick?

That's one of the big questions that Kelechi Ndukwe (Lehman College BA in biology, 2012) hopes to play a part in answering during his career as a researcher. He became interested in morphogenesis (how organisms form) during his undergraduate work with Lehman Assistant Professor Stephen M. Redenti, who works on stem cells, tissue engineering and nanotechnology.

"How do cells connect? How do they know where to go to form specific organs, like a retina?" asks Ndukwe, a Nigerian immigrant who intends to enter an MD/PhD program. "My work, which is ongoing, is trying to develop cells that can track the migration of progenitor cells."

For the moment, though, those plans will take a back seat to research involving genetics and schizophrenia during a yearlong stint at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) laboratories in Bethesda, Md.

In what is believed to be a first for CUNY, he received a rare 2012 NIH Undergraduate Scholarship, one of only 15 granted this year. Students who win them tend to come from universities with medical schools, which CUNY does not have.

The NIH Undergraduate Scholarships are reserved for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who seek careers in biomedical, behavioral and social science health-related research. They provide up to $20,000 per academic year in tuition, educational expenses and living expenses; paid research training during the summer and paid employment and training at NIH after graduation. Grants can be renewed for up to four years. For each scholarship year, participants commit to a 10-week summer laboratory experience under the mentorship of an NIH investigator and one year of research in a laboratory of their choice.

Ndukwe will work with Joel E. Kleinman, MD, PhD, chief of the neuropathology section and deputy chief of the clinical brain disorders branch at NIH. Kleinman, who has published more than 200 papers primarily on the neuropathology of schizophrenia, seeks the molecular, cellular and genetic mechanisms that underlie the disease.

"The research that Doctor Kleinman is doing will require me to acquire a whole new expertise, but I'm willing to learn from him and see where that goes," Ndukwe says. "He's a physician-scientist, as I want to be, so he is definitely going to be the best mentor for me."

Ndukwe has proven himself adaptable to changing circumstances. In 2007, he and his siblings left Nigeria for New York after they had finished high school. They joined their mother, Ogechi, who had moved here seven years earlier after winning an American visa in a lottery. "It was magical when I came here," he says.

College figured prominently in plans for his family. His mother had been to Lehman, earning a social work degree in 2007 before heading to Yeshiva University for a master's. His sister, Oluchi, is majoring in political science at Lehman.

"If I had stayed in Nigeria, I could have gone to college, but it would have been more difficult," he says. "The fees are pretty high over there." At Lehman, near his home in the Bronx, he was encouraged to pursue his interest in biology.

For example, Redenti connected him with Hunter College Distinguished Professor of Biology Marie Filbin. Working under a grant from the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research in 2009, Ndukwe was able to study in her laboratory, working with a senior scientist in her group to develop a plate-based assay - that is, cells grown in a laboratory dish - to test the effect of myelin, a fatty tissue that insulates nerve fibers in vertebrates, on nerve regeneration. Proteins in myelin prevent nerves from re-growing after injuries ranging from spinal fractures to multiple sclerosis.

Ndukwe has not begun pursuing his long-range goal, starting with applications to an MD/PhD program, but he knows that's what he wants to do. "I want to be both a medical doctor and a researcher," he says. "I want to work with patients and be in a laboratory."