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I maintained healthy balance between studies, social activities — Rufai, first class graduate and PhD candidate

Rufai graduated with a 6.9/7.0 CGPA and earned a direct PhD offer to study and research on full scholarship in the United States.
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Basirat Rufai is the overall best graduating student of the University of Ibadan for the 2018/2019 set. She graduated from the faculty of pharmacy with a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of 6.9 out of a possible 7.0. She earned a direct doctor of philosophy (PhD) offer to study and research on full scholarship in the United States. She shares her academic experience with Edugist and how she envisions applying her expertise in real-world scenarios. Excerpts. 

Please share with Edugist, a little about yourself and your background.

My name is Basirat Rufai. I am from Ogun State, Nigeria. I earned a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree from the prestigious University of Ibadan in Oyo State. I am the third child in a family of four.

You graduated from the pharmacy programme of the University of Ibadan with a CGPA of 6.9 out of a possible 7.0. Can you describe your undergraduate academic journey and the key experiences that contributed to your success as the overall best-graduating student?

My undergraduate academic journey was a balance of dedicated studying and a little bit of fun. From the outset in my first year, I was driven by a desire to excel. My resolve deepened after attending an induction ceremony for senior colleagues, where I was profoundly impressed by the recognition and accolades bestowed upon the best graduating student. In my first and second years, I faced challenges in two courses where I couldn’t achieve a perfect grade. 

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Nevertheless, I was determined to strive for excellence in all subsequent courses. This commitment bore fruit, and I ultimately graduated with a CGPA of 6.9/7.0, achieving distinction in all my core courses. To reach this pinnacle, I prioritised studying at optimal times and utilising the most relevant materials, with my peak concentration hours being during the day. I never missed a class, ensuring my notes were comprehensive and current. These notes benefited me and served as a valuable resource for my peers. Moreover, I maintained a healthy balance between my studies and social activities, setting aside time for extracurriculars whenever I wasn’t engrossed in my academic pursuits.

As the top graduate, did you encounter any challenges in your academic journey? How did you overcome them?

Yes, I did. Pursuing a degree in Pharmacy was no easy feat due to the number of materials we had to cover. The tight schedules for lectures and lab sessions left little room for relaxation. Given the multitude of academic commitments, there simply weren’t enough daylight hours. Consequently, I often dedicated my weekends to catching up on studies and exercises. The Faculty of Pharmacy has a rigorous tradition of conducting ‘marathon’ exams: students take exams every weekday for about two weeks, with only weekends as breaks. 

This intense schedule was certainly demanding. My strategy to manage this was to optimise my lecture-free weeks, thoroughly revising all course materials. Furthermore, I ensured I was always up-to-date with every lecture, leaving no backlog. This proactive approach significantly reduced my stress when exams drew near.

What strategies did you employ to maintain a high level of academic excellence throughout your time at University of Ibadan?

To maintain a high level of academic performance at the University of Ibadan, I adopted a key strategy to thoroughly master both the course content and laboratory exercises. I also tutored my peers and it not only assisted them but also gave me an invaluable opportunity to review, further strengthening my understanding of the material.

You have just begun your PhD in computational biology on full scholarship at Rutgers University, New Jersey, United States. How do you envision leveraging your pharmacy background to contribute to the field of computational biology?

My background in Pharmacy has provided me with deep insights into the design and discovery of medicines. This foundational knowledge inspired my pursuit of a Ph.D. in computational biology, a discipline uniquely positioned to tackle complex biological challenges using both computational and experimental methods. Engaging in this field will enhance my understanding of the tools and methodologies employed in medicine design for managing clinical conditions. As the field continues to evolve, my primary research interest lies in harnessing data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence technologies in drug design, aiming to accelerate the drug discovery process.

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Tell us about your scholarship offer and how you applied for it. 

My scholarship covers full tuition remission, health insurance, and an appointment as a graduate teaching assistant, including monthly stipends. I was awarded this scholarship package concurrently with my admission into Rutgers University, following an interview with the admissions committee.

What specific areas of computational biology are you most excited to explore during your PhD programme?

I’m particularly keen on exploring the computational aspect, such as the use of data analytics tools, etcetera. Having a strong background in experimental research, diving deeper into these computational areas presents an exciting challenge and opportunity for me.

Could you describe any prior experiences or projects that sparked your interest in the intersection of pharmacy and computational biology?

Primarily, it was my undergraduate project, which focused on experimental research. In my final year, I enrolled in a course on drug design, which emphasised the role of computer-aided drug design in accelerating the discovery of medicines. This course greatly influenced the selection of my undergraduate thesis topic: “Evaluation of the Lipophilicity Index of Opioids and its Correlation with Their Pharmacokinetic Parameters”. 

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This research sought to establish the structure-activity relationship among this class of drugs, exploring how structural modifications could lead to the development of new medicines with specific activities. Through this work, I recognised the significance of computer-aided drug design, particularly its ability to expedite the drug discovery process. To further my understanding of this computational domain, I pursued some programming courses, many of which are ongoing, to enhance my expertise in alignment with my current academic pursuits.

Are there any role models, mentors or researchers in the field of pharmacy or computational biology who have inspired your decision to pursue this PhD track?

Yes, Prof. Olakunle Idowu from the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan stands out. Through his lectures, he introduced me to the concepts of drug design.

Could you discuss any potential collaborations you see arising between your computational biology research and the pharmaceutical industry?

Potential collaborations stemming from my research could focus on accelerating the drug discovery process, thereby reducing both cost and time. Additionally, there’s the potential to optimise drug design within the research and development units of pharmaceutical companies.

How do you envision applying your computational biology expertise in real-world scenarios?

Computational biology is set to revolutionise the field of drug discovery, presenting a paradigm shift from traditional methods. I anticipate a significant acceleration in the drug discovery process by harnessing computational tools. Although pivotal, traditional experiments can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. We can quickly analyse vast biological datasets with computational methodologies to pinpoint potential drug candidates or therapeutic targets. Molecular modelling and simulation, for instance, can predict how potential drugs interact with their targets, facilitating a more efficient drug design process. In addition, utilising machine learning and artificial intelligence within computational biology can help in sifting through immense databases to identify compounds with potential therapeutic benefits. My vision for applying computational biology to drug discovery is not merely about faster results. It’s about smarter, more precise research that maximises resources, reduces trial and error, and efficiently brings effective treatments to those in need.

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Share your thoughts about the culture of excellence, or the lack thereof, among Nigerian graduates.

Nigerian graduates are often exceptionally brilliant, and I’ve observed that we excel wherever we go. Before receiving my admission offer, I was profoundly impressed by my senior colleagues’ dedication and effort in securing positions in graduate schools abroad and their subsequent success stories. It’s always uplifting to see social media posts of fellow Nigerians announcing their entry into graduate school or celebrating a new job offer. To me, these stories underscore our resilience and drive. The culture of excellence is deeply rooted within us, and it’s heartening to see that we continue to uphold it.

As you embark on this journey, what are the long-term career goals that you envision combining both your pharmacy and computational biology expertise?

Building on the knowledge I’ll acquire, I intend to significantly contribute to the field of drug discovery by working within the research and development divisions of pharmaceutical industries. The significance of the discovery of medicines cannot be overemphasised. 

With the advancements in computational tools, there’s potential to expedite this process and significantly cut costs. I’m confident that the expertise I’ll gain during my programme and my pharmacy background will equip me with the ability to achieve this goal.

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