Researchers will study Nigerian plants to find engineering, medical solutions
Florida A&M University (FAMU) mechanical engineering doctoral candidate Renee Gordon and biochemistry professor Ngozi Ugochukwu, Ph.D., have been named Fulbright Scholars. The prestigious Fulbright Scholars Program is a highly competitive international education exchange program that awards grants to students, faculty or professionals who wish to study, teach and conduct research abroad. Both Gordon and Ugochukwu will conduct respective research on the indigenous resources of Nigeria. Engineering Student Takes Green Ambitions to Nigeria
Gordon is the first student in the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering to receive the Fulbright grant. Her research will focus on using biomass, specifically Nigeria’s cassava leaves, as a green alternative to case hardening steel. She will reside at Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology (FUT) in Akure, which partners with FAMU in a mutual teaching and research exchange program.
According to Gordon, receiving the Fulbright grant brings her closer to fulfilling her desire to do something “forward thinking and innovative” with the indigenous resources of Nigeria. Her goal upon completing her Ph.D. is to work in green engineering with a focus on sustainable and alternative energy and to eventually return to FAMU as a professor to share her knowledge and experiences with others.
“It’s about using sustainable materials and resources that don’t take away from our fossil fuels and using materials that can be regenerated and regrown,” said Gordon about the focus of her research, which picks up where her mentor and research supervisor Peter Kalu, Ph.D. left off.
Kalu, a 3M Distinguished Research Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and 2009-2010 Fulbright Scholar, also conducted research on how Nigeria’s cassava leaves could be used as an alternative method for hardening metal. His research was essential to the establishment of FAMU’s exchange program with FUT.
“We’re making headway there and she’s going to really take the research further,” said Kalu, expressing confidence in his protégé’s potential.
Gordon is a first generation American citizen by way of Jamaica, and first generation college graduate. She said receiving the Fulbright grant is a milestone in the progress of her research after having to overcome several obstacles in order to continue her work
When Gordon and Kalu were invited to present their research at the Fifth International Conference on Structural Engineering, Mechanics and Computation in Cape Town, South Africa in 2013, the duo had planned to have research samples delivered to Nigeria to complete an important heat treatment process phase of the cassava project, however a lack of resources and funding limited them in getting the samples to their destination, until then-Interim President Larry Robinson, Ph.D., stepped in to help.
After receiving the funding they needed, Gordon and Kalu were able to journey to Nigeria for six days prior to their presentation in South Africa, complete the heat treatment and return stateside to continue the research.
“My mom has always instilled in me that I should go as far as I can with my education,” said
Gordon. “I’ve had a lot of hurdles and stumbling blocks, so it’s great for it to come full circle.”
Professor Journeys to Nigeria to Combat Diabetes
Ugochukwu will also complete her research in Nigeria at FUT in Minna. Her research will focus on ethnopharmacology, the study of ethnic groups and their use of drugs. She will also conduct research on bioactive compounds and their role as leads for drug discovery, and uses for traditional medicine in diabetes therapy.
Ugochukwu has been researching diabetes since her tenure began at FAMU in 1998. Her expertise includes the use of biochemical and gene technology techniques in deciphering the underlying mechanisms in the pathophysiology of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, congestive heart failure and colon cancer. Her research focus also includes finding effective preventive strategies and therapies for these diseases
“Diabetes is considered by the World Health Organization and International Diabetes Foundation as one of the major threats to human health in the 21st century,” said Ugochukwu. “The Fulbright grant will give me the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at the FUT Minna Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and the Global Institute for Bio-exploration to scientifically screen and identify anti-diabetic bioactive phytonutrients in indigenous Nigerian plants.”
According to Ugochukwu, this collaborative research could accelerate the discovery and development of new phytopharmaceuticals for diabetes therapy.
Her passion for diabetes research began while she was working on her Ph.D. in Nigeria. Her mission then was to find a fundamental human chronic disease that didn’t have a cure. Her research ultimately led her to diabetes.
“I have this inner quest to find some form of therapy for diabetes,” Ugochukwu said. “Especially because I have done research on the underlying root causes, which are oxidative stress and inflammation. So, discovering anything that will quell those things will be key.”
“I work with chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, congestive heart failure, colon cancer and the like, and underneath them all you see diabetes surfacing its ugly head,” she added.
In addition to her research, Ugochukwu will teach classes in biochemical pharmacology, clinical biochemistry and biochemistry laboratory including virtual proteomics exercises.
She attributes much of her success in research to the support of the FAMU research community, especially her students.
“I am elated about my selection as a Fulbright grantee,” Ugochukwu said. “It’s quite an honor to be recognized by this prestigious body. However, I must attribute this to the collaborative research work my graduate students and I have conducted on chronic diseases over the years at FAMU.”