Ikenna Okafor, Biology

Ikenna Okafor is currently a PhD candidate in the Program in Cell, Molecular, Developmental Biology and Biophysics.

I study biomolecules in motion using high-resolution microscopes. I am from Rochester, NY, where I spent the first half of my childhood before moving to Edgewood, MD (a suburb of Baltimore). My Nigerian father, and my Jamaican mother raised me (well), and I have 2 older siblings (a brother and a sister).

My area of focus is important because I study a technology that can change the DNA of organisms, giving them new functions, treating genetic disorders which only scratches the surface of its overall potential.

I am inspired by the Agape form of love, which would translate to being motivated by my family, my culture and my desire to help create a better world. I have been the co-director/co-chair of the Black Graduate Student Association for two academic years now. In my role I help design academic, professional development, wellness, and social events targeted towards Black graduate students. In the past two years we have secured over $50,000 in funding to carry out these initiatives.

Ikenna with a large $5,000 check

I’m also a fellow for the Commercialization Academy. As a fellow, I look at early-stage technologies from labs across campus. I conduct market analysis and scan the academic and patent landscape to help recommend a way forward. I make time by communicating with “my team,” using my calendar app, and working virtually helps! 

Participating in case competitions were wonderful experiences; it was my third time doing one. With each one I learned more and more! This case competition, I had a PHENOMENAL team that was very experienced, and they helped bring me up to speed, and taught me so much along the way. Together, we were able to successfully represent JHU and bring home the “Big Check.” 

I believe collective human effort is a powerful way to carry out these goals. Business is essentially a collection of humans that have a similar mission. If used correctly, business can be a great tool for solving many global problems. 

I am currently interning at a consulting firm. I got this internship after taking the Management and Technology consulting class offered by the Center for Leadership Education. The professor is the founding/managing partner at the firm, and he encouraged me to apply. I did and the rest was history. 

Professional development & career development is so important because it allows you to view your work in a broader way. Often as PhDs we get stuck in the experiments, journals, and day-to-day tasks, but continual thinking about professional development and career helps keep things in perspective. My long-term goals are to have a positive and meaningful impact on as many people as I can.

Ikenna with a mask in front of art

Kendra Grissom, History

Kendra Grissom is a current PhD student in the history department, focusing on 20th century African American history, social history, labor history and radicalism. She has a bachelors in history with a concentration in U.S. and African American History from Spelman College.

I’m from Baltimore, but Hopkins really became my first choice after I came to EHOP in October 2019. I was drawn to Dr. Jackson and the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts, and how they are working to bring history to the African American community. My service work was divorced from my academic work before I came to Hopkins. It was grounding for me to realize I could do both here.  

I was surprised at how easy it was to foster community [in the history department], even when I haven’t been on campus. I work with a lot of different faculty members, and I feel like I have more of an advising team than a singular adviser. Each of these faculty serve a particular need. There are four other Black women in the history department who support me as well–they help me decompress and navigate the graduate school process, even though they aren’t in my cohort. I felt welcomed, even at moments when I was retreating into myself.

I’m currently working on a first-year, primary sources research paper focused on Black women FBI informants from the 1940s to the 1970s. I’m focused on two women in particular who later became outspoken anti-Communists and detractors of the civil rights movement, and completing field work with Dr. Turner on Black women’s politics across the diaspora. 

In the future, I’d love to work w Dr. Jackson on the Billie Holiday project, particularly around the creation of archives for black churches. I currently work with the Council of Elders of Howard county, and I sit on the Howard County public schools’ advisory board to improve the diversity of social studies curricula.

I want to take what I’m learning and make it pragmatic enough to apply outside of the academy. I hope to build community–to make history accessible, especially in the city and to the African-American community.

Ariel Parker, Cellular, Molecular, Developmental Biology and Biophysics

Ariel Parker is a current PhD student in the CMDB program. She completed an undergraduate biology degree at Swarthmore College.

My thesis work is in biology and particularly behavioral neuroscience. I use C. elegans (a small, transparent, non-parasitic nematode worm) to understand how environmental variance is interpreted by the sensory system to help worms make behavioral decisions.

While I didn’t know that I would study this topic specifically, I have always been interested in science. By the time I was in my senior year of college, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school to do biological research. I came to Johns Hopkins because I wanted to live in a new city for graduate school, having spent most of my life in Philadelphia.

Since coming to Hopkins, I have tried to be involved in the life of the university. I am a member of the planning committee for the recently resurged Black Graduate Student Association. I also restructured and organization called MInDS (Mentoring to Inspire Diversity in Science), the diversity and community outreach group of the department of biology. In conjunction with another Boggs Fellow, Alexandra Gittens and the Teaching Academy, I have also helped to develop a workshop for training biology and graduate teaching assistants.

Outside of the lab, I am involved in activities that relate to my future career. I would like to teach biology at HCBUs and community colleges, institutions that educate a great number of Black scientists. I enjoy painting, crafting, and viewing works of art, especially by Black artists. I am also the Recruitment & Membership Chair of the Joshua Johnson Council at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is one of the oldest African-American museum support groups in the country.

Malik Walker, Physics and Astronomy

Malik Walker is a 2020 Boggs Fellow in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics & Astronomy, with a degree from Princeton University. He majored in astrophysics, while also receiving a Chinese language and culture certificate.

My main inspiration for choosing this field of study was the love for space that I found at a young age growing up in the Bronx, through many trips to science museums and planetariums. In college, I found myself drawn to the subfield of high energy and plasma astrophysics, especially the study of binary black hole and neutron star systems, which are known sources gravitational waves.

This is what ultimately drew me to apply to Hopkins. The Physics and Astronomy department here has a number of faculty who are interested in studying these systems, and as I have gotten to know some of the people in the department, I am certain that I made the right decision in coming here. With my research, my main goal is to further our understanding of plasma processes in space, with my loftier goal being to solve the final parsec problem (which is one of the major unsolved mysteries in astronomy).

In my free time, I enjoy reading, listening to music, and (more recently) baking. I’ve also taken on the challenge of trying to learn how to play the bass guitar, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do, although how far I get with that remains to be seen.

Rachel M. Harris, Chemistry

Rachel M. Harris has an M.S.Ed. from Wilkes University, M.A. in Chemistry from Hopkins, and is currently completing her PhD in the Chemistry department and as a part of the Bowen Lab.

I was a high school and adjunct chemistry, mathematics, and physics teacher for 10 years before deciding to enroll in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. I left education because of the workload and pay, but also because I knew that I could contribute more to the fields of science, research, and education. I chose Hopkins because of the research I would be doing, the graduate students in my department, and the facilities.

Working in the Bowen lab involves a multitude of skills, including computer programming, designing/building/machining components and electrical engineering. We study anions of molecules, clusters and nanoparticles utilizing time-of-flight mass spectrometry and photoelectron spectroscopy. The instruments in the lab are designed and built by the students. In addition to the chemistry and physics involved in the systems of study, students gain a solid understanding of lasers, UHV environments and ion optics. Every day is different and I am learning so much more than just Chemistry.

I would like to be a catalyst for positive change on campus. I have worked to rebuild a support group for graduate students who have children. I’m treasurer for Women of Whiting, on the planning committee for the Women in STEM lecture series, and have worked with the Center for Educational Research to improve TA training.

I’m also a single mom of two children: my son is starting his senior year at Loyola University and my daughter will be a 5th grader. love how Baltimore is made of many small neighborhoods, and feels like a much smaller city, and would like to see and be part of the university providing more opportunities for children in Baltimore.

Tara Ghazi, Psychological and Brain Sciences

Tara Ghazi is completing her PhD in the psychological and brain sciences department, and works in the Courtney Lab.

I came to Johns Hopkins because of the research I would be able to pursue, and the people I would have access to work with and learn from. In my field you must be accepted into a particular lab to work with a specific adviser, so it is important to get a sense of what your working relationships and environment might be like.

I work in the Courtney Lab, where we use cognitive neuroscience to better understand the relationship between the brain and behavior in a diverse range of individuals. My research is focused on understanding the ways oscillatory brain activity underlying working memory in humans may be different based upon sex, gender, and age. My undergraduate studies were in cognitive science, and my dissertation aims to truly increase understanding of differences between individuals – in their cognition and brain activity – by bridging and incorporating knowledge from several disciplines.

In many ways I am not the “traditional” student. I had a large gap in my education and pursued different career paths before returning to academia to become a scientist. I am an underrepresented minority in STEM, and I am a parent. At times during my academic career these differences from other students have seemed very large. Learning to appreciate how they contribute to my own unique perspective and voice, and respecting that others have ways in which they also feel quite different from everyone else, has been an important part of my  journey.

Alfredo Cumerma, Modern Languages

Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman Research Fellow who recently completed his Ph.D. in Modern Languages, with a concentration in Latin American culture and American foreign policy. He’s currently serving as an administrative policy analyst in the police reform section of the Baltimore Police Department.

I came to Johns Hopkins because of the extraordinary support of my advisers, who understand the evolving labor market for PhDs of all stripes. More than half of PhDs today–sciences, social sciences, and humanities alike–work outside of academia by choice, life circumstances, or due to the waning state of stable academic employment.

I needed advisers who would support me on my path toward academic specialization and professional development for the modern workforce. I found that one of the advantages of a Hopkins doctoral education is its deep interdisciplinary nature. I’m not talking about working within your usual allied fields, but with experts in areas radically different from one’s own, which is how you generate innovation.

As Hopkins PhDs, we have access to coursework and programs across all of its schools: the Carey School of Business, School for Advanced International Studies, and School of Medicine, among others. I also encourage any incoming PhD to consult with Hopkins’ Life Design specialists early in the process, before even committing to study here.

This multifaceted approach allowed me to design a research project which threaded its way into areas of critical social importance, all the while preparing me for the project management and problem-solving expected in public and private sector employment.

For my research, I examined the works of Latin American intellectuals: how they write about the state, why they write about the state, and how American foreign policy helped shape that human expression. The topic had a lot of connections to the intelligence community and disinformation campaigns we see in society today.

By the time I was finishing my dissertation, and contrary to the typical misperception of students in the humanities, I had secured more than 20 job interviews in eight months. The right one finally landed in front of me, right here in Baltimore, which I am now proud to call home. Now that this huge endeavor is over, I have an opportunity to shift gears and enjoy other aspects of life: a new job, home ownership, marriage. All of these happened during my last six months of the PhD, and I think that these life milestones are often overlooked as part of one’s education.

Sure, the point is to get where you want to be intellectually and professionally, but your education is also about designing your life in a way which makes living it satisfying.

Elmer A. Zapata-Mercado, Biophysics

Elmer A. Zapata-Mercado is a PhD candidate in the Program in Molecular Biophysics and a member of the Bouchet Society. His research focuses on the thermodynamics of lateral interactions of receptor proteins in the plasma membrane of the cell by employing fluorescence-based techniques.

Zapata-Mercado was the recipient of the Francis D. “Spike” Carlson fellowship, given to outstanding students in molecular biophysics. He also completed the requirements to receive the certificate from the Teaching Academy for Preparing Future Faculty. He also aspires to help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the government through science policy work.