Summer REU sparks BME student’s passion for research

September 27, 2021

Tochukwu Toby Iyke-Nzeocha with Lark J. Perez
Tochukwu Toby Iyke-Nzeocha ’24 with Lark J. Perez, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, at the poster session concluding the REU program she attended at Rowan University this past summer.

Tochukwu Toby Iyke-Nzeocha ’24 was warned that students just completing their first year don’t often get accepted by REU (research experience for undergraduates) summer programs.

So, the University of Rochester biomedical engineering major from Lekki, Nigeria, “prepared myself for rejection”—and applied anyway to Rowan University’s REU in Biomedical Materials, Devices, Therapeutics, and Emerging Frontiers. “I’m so grateful I got in,” she says. “I learned so much!”

During her REU, Tochukwu:

  • used cutting-edge lab techniques and instruments—such as TGA-DSC, Proton NMR, and FTIR—while enhancing the microbial activity of antibiotics using hydrophobic ion pairing in the lab of Lark J. Perez, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
  • found out that she “loves interpreting data”
  • discovered that “I just needed to get started and work through it” to create her first research poster. “I am super proud of myself.”
  • gained a new perspective of what it means to pursue a Ph.D, such as learning “how to connect with people and how important it is to ask questions because the responses can surprise you and you’ll learn new things.”

“For sure, the REU program made my graduate school options clear. I know for sure that I will most likely do a Ph.D,” Tochukwu says.

 Tochukwu had to study remotely from Lekki last fall. The secondary school final examination she had to complete in Ghana was postponed by the pandemic until late summer and early fall. She managed to balance college classes with her final exams. And she scheduled meetings with the University of Rochester’s Greene Career Center and with Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences advisors to learn about professional growth and internship opportunities.

She interacted with seniors through the National Society of Black Engineers student chapter, which she served as freshman representative; engaged with University of Rochester alumni on Meliora Collective, and followed Instagram Ph.D. pages.

“Everyone kept mentioning REUs when I told them I wanted a research opportunity as a freshman and I was like I’m definitely going to apply for this opportunity,” Tochukwu says.

As a result, “I got to live with ten students from different universities with different experiences and cultures,” she says. “It was great to learn so much from them and, even though we are so different, we could all still relate to each other. We got to talk about life in school, give advice, make connections. I loved it.

“In addition, I had an amazing PI (principal investigator). Dr. Perez wanted to make sure that I learned everything I possibly could and that I was equipped with skills I could use as a biomedical engineer. He invited me to a seminar outside the REU program, gave me great advice, and told me about his own experiences.

“Spending the summer in his lab helped me to realize why I love research, because it is an opportunity to learn, think, and meet people.”

 Tochukwu, second from right, with the other REU students she spent the summer with

Tochukwu Toby Iyke-Nzeocha ’24, second from right, says the 10 students she lived with during her REU this past summer “were people who could relate to my struggles, spend time with (we did fun things each weekend), have fun deep conversations with. This made my summer the best.”