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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. Despite initial discomfort with theater, she embraced roles as personal challenges.

Oregon State University's African Student Association hosts Africa Night annually, celebrating the diversity of Africa through dance, music and cuisine.

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

Morakinyo scripted, gathered actors and performed in a play, telling the story of a fictional Nigerian art gallery owner facing self-doubt and familial pressure. Collaborating with Brandon Ndungu, a civil engineering student, she brought the story 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 these 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.

Morakinyo's strength is in the biological realm. “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.

Although she had two prior lab internship experiences during high school that helped her feel comfortable, the people made the biggest difference. Graduate student Nilika Bhattacharya took her under her wings and guided Morakinyo step by step.

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.

She likes to be busy, especially following the pandemic. “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.

She found community with people who understood her and she enjoyed being at the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center.

Part of the mission of the center is to enrich the quality of campus life for African and African-American Students. 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.”