Alumni Spotlight: Nola Tochukwu Ihejirika, MS

Nola Tochukwu Ihejirika, MS, is a 2021 graduate of the Masters of Science in Pathology Laboratory Sciences program at Boston University Graduate Medical Sciences. She is currently a research technician at the COVID-19 Biorepository and the Biospecimen Archive Research Core at Boston Medical Center, with aspirations to pursue a PhD. While at GMS, Nola performed her thesis research in the lab of Joel Henderson, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pathology & laboratory medicine. Her research in his renal pathology lab focused on Minimal Change Disease, a major cause of nephrotic syndrome. Learn more about Nola below!

Tell me a little bit about your journey to Boston University. Are you from the Boston area?

I’m originally from the Dallas/Fort Worth area in Texas, and I went to undergrad at Cornell College, located in a very small town in Iowa. I moved back to Texas and worked after graduation, but I had goals of continuing my education and improving my research and lab skills. Boston was not on my radar at all at first, but a friend from college was living here and mentioned BU as a good school. I figured, “Hey, why not?” and decided to apply here after liking what I learned about the school and the Master’s Program [in Pathology Laboratory Sciences]. I ended up not only finding a great academic program, but a great community with my colleagues and the faculty here as well.

What drew you to the field of pathology and laboratory medicine? 

I’ve always been interested in understanding the pathways of different systems, and how one small misstep in a path can lead to dysfunctions. I also enjoy being hands-on, “behind the scenes”, with science. In this field, I get to learn and deep dive into understanding the finer details of these large concepts in biomedical research. I love being able to explain not only that something happens, but why it’s happening, and pathology gives me the tools to do so. And it’s such a big field, covering all kinds of areas, so there’s always something interesting to work on.

Why did you ultimately choose to pursue a master’s degree in pathology at BU GMS? In other words, what drew you to the Master of Science in Pathology Laboratory Sciences program here?

When I looked at lab-based graduate programs, the master’s here excited me the most, because it offered the most hands-on experience. I didn’t get to do as much lab work in undergrad, and I wanted to expand my skill set, so I was looking for something that involved a deeper level of research. I also loved the fact that the Pathology Master’s Program encourages students to work with a variety of researchers and to learn a variety of techniques. It felt like the program could give me what I was missing and then some.

Tell me a little bit about the research and coursework you completed in the master’s program.

I did my thesis work in Dr. Joel Henderson’s renal pathology lab, focusing on Minimal Change Disease. MCD is a major cause of nephrotic syndrome, especially in children. Before I joined the lab, they had observed fine IgG immunoreactivity during routine immunofluorescent staining of MCD biopsies. My project was to characterize this unique staining pattern and to differentiate it from protein reabsorption, a common feature of nephrotic diseases that has a seemingly similar staining pattern. To do so, I cut and immunofluorescent-stained frozen sections of biopsies taken from patients with different renal diseases, and then used IF microscopy to capture and analyze the staining. Almost everything I did was brand new to me, so it was nerve-wracking, but very exciting, work. Dr. Henderson is a clinical and research pathologist, so as I worked on my thesis, I also learned how to process different kinds of specimens for clinical diagnosis.

I liked a lot of the classes we took, but my favorite class was definitely histopathology. There is a lecture portion that acquainted us with the basics of pathology, along with a lab portion to teach some standard histology techniques. It was especially exciting for me because it’s a first-semester class, so I got to do things I never had experience with, like dissect a kidney and cut sections. The best part was going to the morgue and handling brains. A close second was the PA700 course, which is almost like a journal club. I got to read more scientific literature while also improving my public speaking, two things that I wanted to work on. I used to hate giving presentations, but by the time I had to present my thesis, I felt like a pro.

What are you doing now and what are some of your longer-term goals in the field?

After graduating, I went to work for the Pathology Department biorepository with Professor Liz Duffy and Dr. Chris Andry, and I’ve been here since. My job involves collecting, storing, and managing biological specimens that we distribute to researchers studying a variety of illnesses, like COVID-19, prostate cancer, and even Chagas. I’m like a librarian but for biospecimens. I also work a lot with the master’s program and the students. I manage the lab portion of the histopathology class and get to “pass down” the techniques I learned. I’m really enjoying my job, but my next step is to pursue a PhD. I’d love to be able to do more of my own research, while also still working with other students, both as a colleague and mentor.

Are there any role models in your life who you feel inspired to pursue, or continuing pursuing, this career path?

I’m lucky enough to have several role models and supporters. My family is full of people working in STEM, especially in medicine. My father was a veterinary epidemiologist, so I like feeling like I’m following in his footsteps. My mother has always been my biggest supporter and believes in me almost too much. Liz Duffy, the director of the master’s program, is another one of my major role models, and working with her has helped me better shape my goals for the future. She has been the loudest voice urging me to continue my education with a PhD. I’m pretty sure she’s in cahoots with my mom.

What are some of your best memories from your time at GMS?

A big one was, of course, when I finished and submitted my thesis. I felt so accomplished and proud of my work, but I was mostly relieved that I was finally going to get a full night of sleep again. I also loved building memories with my cohort from the Pathology program. We had a small group, so we often went out for lunch after classes and hard exams. We became close, even as the pandemic started, and I recently got to attend one person’s wedding! My number one favorite memory, though, would have to be the one time somebody showed up late to a Biochemistry lecture, in Bakst Auditorium, in an inflatable dinosaur costume.

Is there any advice you’d give to students starting out their journey in pathology?

It’s such a diverse field, so don’t be afraid to reach out to people to learn new skills or work in labs that are out of your comfort zone! A lot of students come in with a set of ideas of what they like or don’t like and are pleasantly surprised. Try to connect with your classmates and colleagues. I’ve met some really great people, and the Pathology department has the best parties. It’s a lot of work and can be demanding, you should try to enjoy yourself any chance you get. And if you’re ever struggling, people want to help you out. I’m a shy person, but I’ve learned the importance of building relationships and relying on community.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I really was expecting to go right back home after I graduated, but they’ve managed to keep me here for a while. I’m pretty lucky to have found some amazing people to work and connect with that give me opportunities to improve myself. Also, they keep giving me free food.