“I wanted to work with communities internationally to learn about their culture, understand who they are, while at the same time providing service and advocacy,” said Okechi Boms, a 2016 alumnus born in Nigeria who moved to Nolensville, Tennessee, when he was twelve years old. “DGHI has allowed me to seamlessly combine my interests in understanding peoples’ stories and working to improve their lives.”
Boms, who majored in biology, with minors in global health and chemistry, discovered a deep love of learning about others’ cultures during volunteer experiences in Costa Rica and Peru. And after completing a two-month research project in Guatemala with the Student Research Training (SRT) program, he knew that pursuing global health would allow him to have a wider impact beyond the one-on-one interactions of a physician.
Now, a year after graduating from Duke and halfway through a Fulbright program in Quito, Ecuador, Boms looks back at how his experiences at Duke shaped his path and how he hopes to incorporate global health in his future medical studies.
Developing a Passion for People in Latin America
In Costa Rica, Boms spent a week at an orphanage, helping with daily chores, facilitating fun activities and planning English and math lessons. This trip kick-started Boms’ interest in traveling to Latin American countries, as well as a deeper passion for serving others.
“I was living with a host family, and it was incredible to see the parallels between my Nigerian culture and the culture of Costa Rica,” said Boms. “They both emphasize family and togetherness, more so than I’ve experienced in the United States.”
Boms had always felt that people tend to lump all African countries together, and he noticed that many people have the same tendency with Latin American countries. This realization inspired him to learn more about the vast differences and stories across Latin American countries.
“I was drawn to global health by the opportunity to form connections with others,” said Boms. “Immigrating from another country [Nigeria] brought its challenges, but relationship were always important to me. What’s fascinating about global health is that you’re trying to improve people’s lives while also understanding who they are—their culture and history.”
Working on Children's Health in Guatemala
After completing a DukeEngage trip to Peru in the summer of 2014, Boms found the opportunity to travel to Latin America again in 2015 with the SRT program under the mentorship of DGHI associate professor David Boyd. Along with three other students, he spent two months in Guatemala studying how water contamination contributes to growth deficits in children, and whether that malnutrition could have downstream effects of cognitive development and function.
“That was one of the most important global health experiences I had at Duke,” said Boms. “It was different because with volunteering, a lot of times you come in, hopefully do what the community needs, and leave shortly thereafter. What I really loved about the SRT experience was the amount of effort and time that went into our preparation, revision while we were on the ground, and the follow-up work that has continued.”
The team visited homes in five different communities near Lake Atitlán, most of which were indigenous communities that have been historically marginalized or neglected by the government. At each house, they tested water samples for E. coli, measured malnourishment and conducted cognitive tests.
Boms recalls the high level of independence Boyd gave the team, and the nerves that came along with that. He remembers calling him from the field and Boyd reassuring him and his teammates: “I trust you all; you’ve prepared for this.”
“That was great because it allowed us to take ownership of the project,” said Boms. “It helped us grow individually and progress as scientists, critical thinkers and community members. I loved that aspect of it.” Boms completed data analysis his senior year and is working to publish the results now.
Another part of the project Boms appreciated was the focus on benefiting the community. In addition to conducting research, the team taught health and dental workshops at local schools.
“That aspect of the project helped me understand that when doing research in communities, it’s okay to have an end goal like data collection, but it should not just benefit you. You should find a way to give back to the community, too.”
Building on His Research with a Fulbright in Ecuador
Boms wanted to expand on his research after graduating from Duke. He was accepted as a Fulbright Scholar and is currently halfway through his year-long project in Quito, Ecuador. He’s studying how food insecurity and access to food in families affects malnutrition in children, and how that malnutrition could have a downstream effect on cognitive development.
Boms chose Quito because it provided an opportunity to work in an urban setting compared to his previous rural experiences, which has allowed him practice cultural competence in a new location. “Practicing cultural competence is a skill as much as it is a way of thinking that you have to build over time,” he reflected.
He’s collaborating with Centro Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia (CENIT Ecuador), an organization that has been in Quito for 25 years; it provides education, social and health services to various communities in the city. At CENIT, he also serves as the health care team coordinator and collaborates with a local health center. He splits his time as a researcher and volunteer, leading community workshops on topics like nutrition, and mental health.
Boms has found that people have been extremely receptive to the project, which he credits primarily to the relationships he’s formed with the community members during his workshops and the long-standing reputation of CENIT.
Learning the Importance of Listening to the Community
During the first few months of his Fulbright, Boms had a vision of a flawless research experience. As the program progressed, though, he found that letting go of perfection has enabled him to tailor parts of his research to what CENIT and the community needs.
“That’s an invaluable lesson I learned at DGHI: the importance of shifting the question from ‘how can I be the best’ to ‘how can I best serve and learn from the community I’m working with,” he reflected.
What's Next for Boms?
Boms plans to go to medical school in August after completing the Fulbright. He wants to pursue a career that involves global health research and advocacy, which could mean anything from serving in public offices to working with international health organizations.
“I really see myself becoming a physician who can work with individual patients but also commit to community and population-level issues, because that’s the way to have a broad impact and bring about social change,” said Boms. “I believe everyone has a right to basic health care, and we need to provide people with a healthy start, so they can advance themselves and achieve their goals.”
That’s an invaluable lesson I learned at DGHI: the importance of shifting the question from ‘how can I be the best’ to ‘how can I best serve and learn from the community I’m working with.'Okechi Boms, global health alumnus