Pulling Back the Curtain: Olatoyosi Odenike, MD

Olatoyosi Odenike, MD
Associate professor of medicine in the hematology/oncology section at the University of Chicago

In this edition, Olatoyosi Odenike, MD, speaks about her “rebellious” path to medical school in Nigeria, the importance of life’s tangents, and her passion for cooking.

In Sound Bites, hear more from our interview with Dr. Odenike.

When did you become interested in medicine?

My mom is a medical laboratory technologist and her lab also has a blood bank, so I got an early introduction to patient care and hematology from her. She also gave me my first job: Throughout high school, I worked as a receptionist for her lab during the summer.

My mother is an incredibly strong woman who passed her work ethic down to me and my three siblings. Working for her was no walk in the park; I had to show up on time, put in the hours, check patients in, and, as the front-desk receptionist, I was the “face” of the lab. I learned that this work was an important part of helping people recuperate and was something to be applauded.

I got my love of academics from my father. He was not a physician, but he was a scientist and a professor of chemistry and soil science. I loved the way he thought about problems, his passion for his work, and the importance he placed on contributing to one’s field.

He was a great teacher; my sister and I excelled in chemistry because of his work. I remember taking my high school chemistry exams and thinking, “This is ridiculously easy – thank you, Dad!”

That ability to teach others effectively – the way he could break down complex ideas into basic principles – is a skill that I still use today with patients and trainees.

Dr. Odenike (right) in a bookstore, with her husband and their 13-year-old son (who she said is going through a “smiling in photos is lame” phase).
Dr. Odenike (right) in a bookstore, with her husband and their 13-year-old son (who she said is going through a “smiling in photos is lame” phase).

Did you ever think about pursuing a career in another field?

I had a brief diversion after high school. In Nigeria, you go into medical school directly after high school, without earning a four-year degree, so I needed to figure out what I wanted to do for my career pretty early.

People in my family assumed that I would go into medicine, but I was a little rebellious. When I graduated from high school and was thinking about college, I thought, “I’m not going to do what everybody’s expecting – I’m going to be an engineer.”

What attracted you to engineering?

I was exposed to the field growing up because people in my extended family were engineers. They all seemed like such bright people and I thought it would be a good choice. Also, I liked that it was a challenging career and, at the time, I thought engineering might be even more challenging than medicine.

Deep down, I think I knew that I wasn’t going to be an engineer. Within the first couple of years, I realized I wasn’t very passionate about it.

I thought that I should probably go into medicine – even if that ended up being what others had told me I would be all along! As soon as I got into medical school, I felt like I was at home.

I think going off on tangents may not be such a bad thing for human beings. When you retrace your steps on the way to finding what you were truly meant for, it helps you appreciate the contrast even more. Everything fell into place when I righted my course.

What was different about medicine? Why did you feel that instant connection?

I can’t quite put my finger on it … I was just so interested in learning about how the human body works. When I was taking the basic courses in physiology, anatomy, and biology, I found all of it fascinating – unlike when I was in engineering.

After you decided on medicine, what drew you to specialize in hematology?

I loved the challenge it presented. I saw people who had myeloid malignancies and did not have good treatment options. I thought, “Wouldn’t that be an interesting problem to help solve?”

Who played a role in shaping your career?

Many people have influenced my career path and how I approach my work on a daily basis. Nancy Zeleznik-Le, PhD, provided me with hands-on experience and mentoring during my training. Harvey Golomb, MD, was my section chief throughout my fellowship and took a chance on accepting a foreign medical school graduate into the University of Chicago’s fellowship program. Richard Larson, MD, and Wendy Stock, MD, also opened many doors for me and are people whom I’ve respected and learned from over time.

One of my earliest mentors in hematology/ oncology was Janet Rowley, MD, a legendary physician-scientist who received many of the American Society of Hematology’s prestigious awards. [Editor’s Note: Most recently, Dr. Rowley was a recipient of the 2011 Ernest Beutler Lecture and Prize.] I was lucky enough to work in her lab as a fellow. Aside from the numerous fundamental discoveries she made, Dr. Rowley also was a generous human being. It was wonderful of her to allow me to spend time in her lab, even though I didn’t have a solid background in basic science or molecular biology.

She believed in collaboration; everyone’s voice mattered – from the high school students who worked in her lab to her colleagues and peers. I learned much about generosity and hu- mility, and about the importance of having a life outside of work. Having downtime to re-energize your work is essential.

Have you taken her advice about finding that work-life balance?

I have tried, and I don’t think I would be able to do any of the things I do without the support of my incredible husband, Muyideen. He’s a computer engineer and my loudest cheerleader. He’s always excited about my accomplishments, whatever they may be.

We are blessed to have a 13-year-old son, Fuad, who is inquisitive and constantly challenges us in various ways with questions about the world today and how the world could be.

When you have time away from work, what do you and your family enjoy doing?

I love to cook anything and everything. One of my favorite cuisines is Nigerian food, but with a twist. I like to put my own spin on other people’s recipes. My “signature dish” is shrimp fried rice, a Nigerian-Asian fusion recipe that has flavors of sesame oil, ginger, and rodo (also known as habanero peppers, which are a staple of Nigerian cuisine). I also make a mean jollof rice, a classic Nigerian dish. I wish I had more time to cook. I enjoy my time in the kitchen because it’s a great stress relief. And, I’m grateful that my husband and son will eat anything I make. It brings me pure joy.

My son, though, likes to critique my dishes. He’ll actually rate it! He’ll always eat it, but he’ll give me feedback, “Mom, I give you an 8.5 out of 10 for that.” I cannot wait until he starts turning out his own recipes and my husband and I can sit back and relax! We also love to goof around. At the end of a long workday, it’s nice to go home, let my hair down (literally and figuratively) and be silly with them. They’re both techy computer nerds, so they have me outnumbered there, but my son and I share a passion for reading.

What do you enjoy reading? Do you read the same things as your son?

He’s more into graphic novels and Manga; his dream is to visit Japan someday. I will read just about anything – I love reading science fiction, delving into novels that celebrate ideas of social justice, flipping through mindless entertainment magazines, [and] reading the newspaper. …

I recently read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is set during the Biafran War in the late 1960s. I love her books and how she interprets historic scenarios through the eyes of her fictional characters. I also enjoyed The Girl With all the Gifts by M.R. Carey, a dystopian horror novel (which I usually shy away from), but with a science-fiction twist, which is what drew me to it. Growing up, I was the kid who would lock herself in a room and not be able to put a book down.

I just wish I had more time to read for pleasure. My idea of heaven is hanging out and reading books with my family.

If you could have dinner with anyone from history who would it be?

I was trying to think of someone from medical history who I greatly admire, and, fortunately, I have had the pleasure of having dinners and conversations with her many times: Dr. Rowley.

So, if I could choose someone who I never had the honor of meeting, I would say Nelson Mandela. I’ve always been intrigued by his life and perseverance. It is so impressive that a human being could endure all he endured and still emerge fully committed to his or her ideals. Even after his imprisonment, he continued to push boundaries to bring his ideas to fruition. If I could, I would ask him, “How did you keep it together? Why didn’t you ever give up?”

Obviously, he worked on a grand scale, but I think we can learn much from historical figures like Mr. Mandela to take back to our own small corners of the world. We have to do the things that give us joy and hold on to our dreams.