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How a Nigerian student became an award-winning PhD candidate

phd candidate
In high school, science was a challenge so she spent the gap year after graduation in a tutorial centre. Source: Chioma Onwuchekwa

Chioma Onwuchekwa is the recipient of Tennessee Technological University’s 2020-21 Northrup Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. Winners are chosen based on how they uphold ethics, punctuality, preparedness, teamwork and dedication to teaching, among others. The PhD candidate of environmental science-chemistry is the first Nigerian, African and international student to ever win this award.

Yet, science did not always come easy to Onwuchekwa. In high school, it was a challenge.  She spent the gap year after graduation in a tutorial centre. Here’s where talent met opportunity. She found “the best chemistry teacher who knew how to break down all the concepts.” “Honestly, he made chemistry fun and is pretty much the reason why I majored in Industrial Chemistry in college and graduated with first class honours,” she tells us. 

A postgraduate degree at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland followed. Then, a teaching scholarship to Tennessee Technological University. We caught up with Onwuchekwa to learn more about journey to award-winning scientist:

What made you choose to study in Scotland and the US?

With a background in chemistry, I wanted to branch out into the environmental side of things and needed a programme that gave me a bird’s eye view of both energy and environmental management fused with chemistry. Furthermore, I got to live in a city that I had never been to and it’s beautiful. 

I visited England many times before my postgraduate degree, but I had never been to Scotland. I got to experience new things, hear the great Scottish accent and even got a glimpse of the Prince and Duchess of Cambridge during my time there. 

Tennessee Technological University

“With a background in chemistry, I wanted to branch out into the environmental side of things,” says the PhD candidate. Source: Chioma Onwuchekwa

As for the US, when I was searching for PhD programmes, it was important that I got into one that was interdisciplinary enough to expose me to relationships between the environment and other different areas of study beyond chemistry. 

Within your time at Tennessee Technological University, what are some interesting things you’ve discovered in your research?

My research at Tennessee Technological University focuses on microplastics in the aquatic environment and one of the key parts of my work looks at how they’re able to transport organic pollutants from one place to another. A fun fact is that if we continue to use plastics at the current rate, the UN projects that the amount might outweigh the fish. 

What do you plan to do with your PhD after graduating from Tennessee Technological University?

I will be working as an environment strategy specialist for Cummins Inc. 

Tennessee Technological University

Being in the US provided her with the chance to attend conferences (pre-COVID-19 times) that she would have otherwise needed to make extensive travel arrangements for. Source: Chioma Onwuchekwa

Tell us what you like most about Scotland and the US?

In Scotland, I like a drink called “irn-bru” (carbonated soft drink) and I think everyone needs to taste it. In the US, I love my uni’s town, Cookeville. It’s quaint and small enough to not feel overwhelmed while still having lots to do. It’s also only an hour away from Nashville which is known to be a music city. 

Do you think it would have made a difference if you studied at a local institution?

I’ve asked myself that question a few times and the one thing I would like to add is that being in the US provided me with the chance to attend conferences (pre-COVID-19 times) that I would have otherwise needed to make extensive travel arrangements for. I also probably would have not been able to attend because of all the visa requirements. Apart from that, it’s tricky to compare because I do not have the knowledge about getting my PhD back home. 

Tell me about your hometown. What would you show me?

I am from Imo State in South Eastern Nigeria. I would show you the Mbari Cultural & Art Centre in Owerri which is an open space museum that houses artifacts and provides insights into the history of the Igbo tribe.

List your top three favourite things about the US.

How large it is. I’m able to experience different types of holiday destinations. The US invests in research so I’m able to get my PhD and I’m grateful for that. It’s also the land of opportunities.  

What’s the local food like in Scotland, the US and Nigeria? Tell us your most and least favourite.

The Scots love their “haggis” (the national dish of Scotland in the form of a pudding composed of the liver, heart, and lungs of a sheep) but a personal favourite of mine is fish and chips. In the US, I love biscuits but not a huge fan of cheese. From home, I love fried plantain and peppered goat meat. 

Tennessee Technological University

Her research at Tennessee Technological University focuses on microplastics in the aquatic environment. Source: Chioma Onwuchekwa

What do you miss from home and how do you substitute it?

I miss my family. There is really no substitute for that but we keep in touch through daily video calls. 

What advice do you have for international students looking to go abroad?

Be open-minded because it is a whole new experience, both culturally and educationally. You will miss home, so get involved in activities beyond the classroom to help you meet new people (joining a gym or church, local volunteer groups and taking up any opportunity to meet new friends). 

Do you have any tips for students on budgeting their finances abroad?

I am still looking for tips myself. Although I will say two things that have helped me so far is cooking your own food (cheaper and healthier than going out to eat) and always buying store brands when you can.