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Ebunoluwa Morakinyo is seen dancing with an Nigerian flag during African night.

Biochemistry and molecular biology senior thrives from the stage to the lab

By Hannah Ashton

Ebunoluwa Morakinyo being a flag bearer for Africa Night 2023. She is holding the Nigerian flag.

Ebunoluwa Morakinyo is a scientist. She is also a home chef, writer, director and actress. Theater was not entirely an area she felt at home in, but she took on the roles as a personal challenge.

Every year, the African Student Association at Oregon State University holds Africa Night — an evening to dance, listen to music, eat delicious food and celebrate the diversity of Africa.

In 2022 the theme was, “What I am is greater than what I was.”

Morakinyo wrote a script, gathered actors and performed in a short play, telling the story of a fictional art gallery owner in Nigeria who has to overcome self doubt and pressure from her family to pick a more stable career path. She collaborated with Brandon Ndungu, a civil engineering student, to bring the play to life.

Participating in ASA events is important to Morakinyo because she is passionate about showing the Oregon State community what it means to be African.

“There’s more than the sadness or negative news,” she said. “There’s also stories of creativity and innovation and beautiful culture. There’s a reason why we love being African and I wanted to share that with others.”

Being a Beaver has stretched her to develop her passions inside and outside of the lab. A senior honors biochemistry and molecular biology student at Oregon State, her time on campus has included celebrating her culture while looking forward to a career dedicated to helping others.

Morakinyo will be taking a gap year before pursuing a career as a physician-scientist. In the upcoming year she will be working with Dr. Carsten Bonnemann in his National Institutes of Health lab under the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The Bonnemann lab investigates childhood neuromuscular and neurogenic disorders, developing cutting-edge gene therapies for theses diseases.

Ebunoluwa Morakinyo acting on stage.

Ebunoluwa Morakinyo acting in "Victories of Today," the play she wrote for African Night 2022. She is playing the mom of the main character.

‘Finding community’

Morakinyo was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the U.S. when she was four years old after her father was accepted to Portland State University to get his Ph.D. in chemistry.

Education has always been a priority in her family. Her father is not the only family member with an advanced degree; her mom has a master’s in computer science.

“Maybe partly because of my parents, I was already kind of geared towards the sciences but my strength was the biological type,” she said. “My mind is geared towards like, ‘What is really the story behind that?’ ‘What are the processes going on?’”

She picked Oregon State because it was in-state and promotes research, something she was excited about. “I liked how it has a culture of undergraduate research which is what I wanted to do.”

In January 2021, she reached out to the Indra Lab in the College of Pharmacy. The lab focuses on skin biology, skin inflammation, skin cancers and wound healing. Knowing she liked biochemistry but didn’t want to necessarily focus on elucidating protein structure, she had searched for other biochemistry opportunities on campus.

“The lab looks to investigate how wound healing could be enhanced to be faster because that is important in many medical applications. It can have dire consequences if not treated well,” she said. “That interested me because it was the application of biochemistry to a more tangible or immediate thing while seeing the impact on larger systems.”

Joining the lab was as simple as reaching out and attending a virtual lab meeting.

"Find a community with your passion, because it goes a long way and helps you to feel not as alone, and through that, you can meet people who pour life into you and you get to pour life into them."

Although she had two prior lab internship experiences during high school that helped her feel comfortable, the people made the biggest difference.

“I had a really helpful graduate student, Nilika Bhattacharya, who took me under her wings and guided me step by step,” Morakinyo said.

The older undergraduate students in the lab also showed her the ropes and made her feel like a valuable member.

She studied the relative population of immune cells during skin wound healing in mutant mice that demonstrated accelerated wound healing. The goal was to determine whether the deletion of BCL11A, a development transcription factor found in skin cells, affects the recruitment of important immune cells during skin wound healing.

Preparing for medical school–with aspirations to be a physician-scientist–Morakinyo wanted to take part in as many Oregon State opportunities as she could.

On top of ASA and the Indra Lab, she was also a physics Learning Assistant and peer mentor with the Beaver Connect Program. Learning Assistants are current students who successfully completed a course and wish to help fellow students taking the same course in the future. The Beaver Connect program connects new-to-OSU students with peers and faculty members to ease the transition to college.

Ebunoluwa Morakinyo tutoring a student.

Ebunoluwa Morakinyo LA-ing with a student.

Morakinyo met with four new OSU students and one faculty member five times per term. The group discussed applying for scholarships, finding research opportunities, exploring career paths and more.

“I am the type of person who likes to be busy, especially coming off COVID years,” she said. “I wanted to do everything because I enjoy it. I enjoy research and I like teaching and reflecting on my experiences and passing it forward.”

Joining the African Student Association felt natural after participating in her high school’s Black Student Union. She was excited to connect with other students who have a similar immigrant experience.

“Oftentimes in America, there’s not a good distinction between what it means to be Black American and what it means to be African, because we do come with different valuable experiences,” she said. “I am a more recent immigrant, versus someone who has more family history here as a Black American.”

During her first year at Oregon State, she was also interested in learning how to speak her native language, Yoruba. She and her sisters can understand it, but speaking it is more difficult. Through speaking, Morakinyo has built a stronger connection to her heritage, helping her form her personal identity.

“I was able to find community with people who understood different mannerisms and that type of thing. I also enjoyed being at Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center,” she said.

Part of the mission of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center is to enrich the quality of campus life for African and African-American Students. The center also hosts scheduled events designed to promote inclusivity and community. Morakinyo spent time using the center’s resources including a lounge, study space, library and computers.

Being involved across campus was one of her best decisions. Although it was sometimes difficult to balance, the mental health benefits mattered.

“Find a community with your passion, because it goes a long way and helps you to feel not as alone and through that, you can meet people who pour life into you and you get to pour life into them.”