Dr. Princess I. Imoukhuede is an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her B.S. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her PhD in bioengineering from the California Institute of Technology. Afterwards, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Imoukhuede has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, The Rose Award for Teaching Excellence from the University of Illinois College of Engineering, and was recognized as an Excellent Instructor by the University of Illinois Center for Teaching Excellence. In addition, she was selected as a Young Innovator by Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering. Dr. Imoukhuede joined us in an interview to tell us about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:22)
When Dr. Imoukhuede is ready for a break from the hustle and bustle of research and academic life, you can find her out on the tennis court. She didn’t pick up the sport until she was in the midst of her postdoctoral fellowship in the Washington DC area where tennis is quite popular. Since then, tennis has been a great stress reliever for her.
The Scientific Side (3:12)
In her current position, Dr. Imoukhuede teaches classes, advises students, manages her research lab, trains students on how to do different lab techniques, serves on various university committees, writes, and edits student papers. There is a lot of variety from day to day. Dr. Imoukhuede conducts research in bioengineering where she uses engineering principles to understand biology.
A Dose of Motivation (4:12)
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:19)
When Dr. Imoukhuede was in 8th grade, her science teacher recognized she was really interested in the topics discussed in class and brought it up with her parents. Dr. Imoukhuede’s parents bought her a chemistry set, exposed her to different enrichment activities, gave her opportunities to attend science summer camps and activities, and generally supported her education from elementary school all the way through high school. As a result of her talents and encouragement from her teachers and family, Dr. Imoukhuede was able to attend the Illinois Math and Science Academy starting her sophomore year of high school. One day each week was reserved for independent inquiry, and Dr. Imoukhuede used that time to do research at a local university. It was exciting because she could take what she was learning in organic chemistry in high school and apply it in a chemical engineering research lab. This experience got her interested in pursuing chemical engineering in college. At MIT, Dr. Imoukhuede had a phenomenal experience working in a research lab there, and this inspired her to continue on to become a professor.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (22:57)
Princess has experienced challenges related to being a woman, an African American, and an African American woman in science. She uses her first and middle initials rather than her full name when publishing papers to try to avoid gender bias affecting how her work is received. In addition, funding for science is very limited, and it has become increasingly difficult to secure sufficient research funding. Getting rejection letters is frustrating, and it’s hard to share the bad news with students. When Dr. Imoukhuede received her first few rejection letters, it was particularly unnerving. However, with support from her mentors, she was able to interpret some of the reviewers’ comments and get her resubmitted applications accepted. Studies indicate that funding rates are lower for African American researchers compared to their peers, and Dr. Imoukhuede continues to work hard to overcome these barriers in her field to ensure her research is funded.
A Shining Success! (31:23)
Dr. Imoukhuede was recently awarded an NSF CAREER award that will support her research and her educational mission for the next few years. She enjoys working with many undergraduate researchers in her laboratory, and she will be creating new channels for undergraduates to be exposed to research at the University of Illinois. The critical thinking and leadership skills they develop through working in a research lab will help students, regardless of the career path they choose. This educational component is a fundamental piece of Dr. Imoukhuede’s mission as a scientist and engineer.
Book Recommendations (38:16)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation – and Positive Strategies for Change by Linda Babcock
Most Treasured Travel (40:05)
One of the most exciting places Dr. Imoukhuede’s research has taken her is to Erice, Sicily. She embarked on this trip as her first international workshop as a graduate student. Dr. Imoukhuede enjoyed exploring The Colosseum and other sights in Rome during a long layover on the way there. When she arrived, she was absolutely blown away by the meeting. The small workshop brought together experts in the field of transporters to get everyone on the same page in terms of the history, the research past and present, and the next steps for the field. It was wonderful to get to know these experts, ask them questions, talk about research, and enjoy fantastic meals together. There were a few day trips built into the conference as well, so they were able to visit local sights and experience the culture of Sicily.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (43:46)
The Imoukhuede lab holds group meetings each week, and Dr. Imoukhuede has crafted these meetings into an environment where people feel comfortable being themselves, speaking up, and contributing to the science. When they talk about research ideas, everyone has a lot to say. Their science becomes social, fun, and exciting. Their meetings have been known to continue well past the two hour mark for up to three or four hours. It has been a lot of fun for Dr. Imoukhuede to see those she mentors grow and develop as scientists.
Advice For Us All (50:11)
Finding good mentors is really important. They can help you get through the tough times in your career and your life. Also, continue to think critically. Research is an exciting approach to understanding our world and making it better. Critical thinking doesn’t just have to happen by professional scientists in the laboratory. Non-scientists can incorporate scientific approaches into their own lives, cultivate their excitement for science, and find ways to partner with local universities or organizations to get involved in science.
In addition to conducting exemplary research in college which earned her the MIT Class of 1972 award, Professor Imoukhuede was an NCAA All-American athlete, garnering these honors three times for placing at the NCAA Track and Field Championships. In graduate school at Caltech, her research combined sensitive techniques in biomedical optics with nanoparticle imaging to understand the structure, function, and trafficking of a key protein in epilepsy, the GABA transporter (GAT1). She also performed research in nicotine addiction through molecular imaging of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Professor Imoukhuede was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Bioengineering PhD by Caltech and was only the second African-American woman to earn a PhD from Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science. While at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for her Postdoctoral Fellowship, she was 1 of 10 postdoctoral fellows nationwide to earn the prestigious United Negro College Fund/Merck Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, 1 of 6 young investigators to earn the FASEB Postdoctoral Professional Development Award, and her work was awarded a Poster Award at the biennial Gordon Conference in Angiogenesis. As a native of Illinois, Dr. Imoukhuede was excited to join the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her lab currently studies the vascular microenvironment to identify molecular and cellular signaling networks that modulate, inhibit, and promote blood vessel formation. She combines this with systems biology approaches to identify promising therapeutic targets. Her goal is to unravel the molecular complexities governing blood-vessel formation, which has the potential for treatment of more than 70 diseases, including breast cancer and some cardiovascular diseases.