In honor of Black History Month, John Odhiambo sent a questionnaire to Dr. Benson Akingbemi, Professor of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at Auburn University to discuss his scientific career and experience in reproductive biology. It was a pleasure reading his responses and I thought you would like to share the experience with me too. Let’s take a look:
1. What is your current position, and what does it entail?
I joined the Auburn University of the college of veterinary medicine in the fall of 2004 and am currently a professor of anatomy. My research interests are focused on male reproductive biology and toxicology, developmental biology, and environmental endocrine disruptors.
2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?
I had all of my initial education in my native country Nigeria. However, it was my doctoral research that gave me a ‘kick’ into the world of biomedical research. At the start of my program, it happened that there was much interest in a potential male contraceptive called gossypol which was discovered in cottonseed oil. This compound would be cheap and generally available to developing countries. My mentor at the University of Ibadan (Professor Tom Aire) and I decided to study aspects of gossypol toxicity in the male gonad. And we did publish our results in a good number of journals. But unfortunately, hypokalemia was a consistent finding in clinical trials in China, this finding dampened further interest in gossypol. After completion of my doctoral program, I was lucky to receive a Fogarty Research Fellowship award from the US National Institutes of Health for postdoctoral training. At the time of arrival in the US, there was increasing public interest and concern that chemicals present in the environment (food, air, water) may be exerting adverse effects on reproductive health. On advice by my mentor Dr. Matthew Hardy (Population Council, Rockefeller University), we focused on the effects of environmental substances with hormonal activity in the male gonad. Fortunately, I was able to extend my training beyond the initial fellowship award period and trained in this area between 1997 and 2004. After seven years in a postdoctoral position, my mentor and I decided it was time for me to seek an independent position, which was why my family moved here to Auburn. Since joining Auburn University in 2004, my research has, expectedly, focused mostly on endocrine disruptor effects on testis development and steroid hormone secretion.
3. What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?
The most challenging period was in 2020. We suddenly had to make a switch to using mostly online platforms for teaching. Lectures were recorded and videos were made to supplement our anatomy lab sessions. Students were granted unrestricted access to all instructional materials, and we were able to make it through the year. For example, the pandemic was more disruptive of research activities. For a good period of time, we could not bring animals into our facilities for most of 2020. The situation has since improved to pre-pandemic levels.
4. Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?
It’s hard to describe any lessons learned because the pandemic is still a factor of life. It’s probably easier to say that one is hopeful the pandemic situation continues to improve and there will be little or no disruption to academic activities similar to what we endured in 2020.
5. What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?
Because the work environment and career ladders differ in different settings, I will suggest that young individuals carefully consider what career choices will meet their life aspirations: teaching and/or research at public and private institutions or work in the industry. Seeking information and mentoring by more senior persons will be useful. A high level of commitment to any career will normally bring reasonable success.
6. Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?
As an individual who had all of his initial education outside the United States, settling into a new culture was a challenge. For the same reason, I considered that a longer than usual period for postdoctoral training will be useful to help make necessary adjustments, learn a few more techniques, and understand the field enough to find a niche. As you would expect, the situation always got better over time with no negative impact on my training or career plans.