Aspiring pharmacist hopes to use inclusive excellence award to share knowledge, build bridges

'Seeing someone who looks like you in the space you want to go in – sometimes that can be all the encouragement you need'

U of T Scarborough student Ifedinma Agbatekwe is the inaugural winner of the Inclusive Excellence Award in Biological Sciences (all photos by Don Campbell)

It was the height of the pandemic when Ifedinma Agbatekwe walked up to the owner of a Shopper’s Drug Mart and asked to work in the pharmacy. 

Then 17 years old, Agbatekwe was trying to decide on a career path. She had been encouraged to explore three options if she wanted to be successful: doctor, lawyer or engineer. None were the right fit, but a career in health care did seem appealing, so Agbatekwe resolved to find her own way into the field.

She landed a co-op placement in the pharmacy and, as wave after wave of COVID-19 hit, worked her way up to overseeing all asymptomatic testing. It was chaotic, she says, and she loved every minute of it.

 “I really saw the impact a pharmacist can have, and I thought, ‘This is something I can see myself doing for a long time.'"

Agbatekwe, who is now in her second year at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she's pursuing a double major in molecular biology, immunology and disease and psychology, is the inaugural winner of the Inclusive Excellence Award in Biological Sciences. Launched by U of T Scarborough’s department of biological sciences, the award includes a $1,000 cash prize, a year-long meal plan, a paid research opportunity and one-on-one mentorship.

Agbatekwe is being mentored by Professor Maydianne Andrade, a world-renowned evolutionary ecologist whose lab investigates mating habits of black widows. While she was willing to give spider research a try, Andrade helped her find a placement with a stronger connection to her goals – she’s now working in the immunology research lab of Professor Bebhinn Treanor, where she helps take care of the lab space, attends daily meetings and is learning fundamental lab techniques.

She has embraced the chance to learn from graduate students at the lab – they’ve recommended courses, discussed the pros and cons of graduate studies, recounted how they got into research and offered insights into their lived experiences as people of colour in academia. 

Agbatekwe has brought that knowledge to bear on her work as a member of the campus’s Biology Students’ Association (BioSA) and the Bio Sci EDI Committee. She laughingly says she wants to “be like Oprah” for people of colour in science – someone who advocates, acts as a bridge for individuals and information, and widely distributes the tools needed to thrive.

“As Black individuals, one thing we lack is information about how to navigate our different options, because we don’t have a lot of people in this specific field,” she says. “If we know how to better navigate the spaces we’re in, we can succeed faster and we can succeed more.”

Ivana Stehlik, a professor in the department of biological sciences and chair of the EDI BioSci committee, says Black and Indigenous students have been underrepresented in the program due to systemic racism and limited access to financial resources and networking opportunities. “This award was made to remove barriers Black and Indigenous students face, and help them feel heard, worry a little less financially and to – very critically – benefit from networking with a research faculty as a member of their research lab,” Stehlik said.

Agbatekwe has contributed as a mentor herself. After immigrating to Oakville, Ont. from Nigeria at age 13, she spent her high school years volunteering with the Big Brother, Big Sister program, which had her support elementary school students with their academics and personal lives. She then joined the non-profit’s cultural mentorship program and worked specifically with Black students, before getting involved with the Imani Black Academic Mentorship Program at U of T Scarborough. Agbatekwe has since guided Black girls at a local high school, and became an assistant with the program.

“After George Floyd, I felt like I needed to focus more on Black students and helping them navigate the Black life, because it’s challenging,” she says. “Seeing someone who looks like you in the space you want to go in – sometimes that can be all the encouragement you need.”

Agbatekwe is now applying for the doctor of pharmacy program at U of T's Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, though she has no plans set in stone — just an overarching goal.

“When I do leave U of T Scarborough, I want to be able to say I made an impact, and see my impact,” she says.

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