After graduating as the best student in the chemistry department of Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, Raheemat Rafiu received a direct PhD offer to study and research at Missouri University of Science and Technology, United States. Today, she specialises in Synthetic Organic Chemistry and speaks with Edugist on how she leveraged her undergraduate background to achieve this feat. Excerpts.
You graduated with a chemistry degree at Obafemi Awolowo University. Can you describe your undergraduate academic journey and the key experiences that contributed to your success?
My undergraduate degree was fun but challenging. OAU’s chemistry department is notorious for pushing you to your limit and demanding some more. I knew what I was getting into but did not focus on how “tough” or “challenging” the programme was. I instead focused on doing my best in every course and that made the journey less draining.
I had to make a lot of sacrifices—like sleeping in the chemistry library overnight and abandoning my allocated accommodation because it was too far from my department—but it all paid off in the end. Looking back, I am grateful for how much I learned during the programme as it made my transition to a doctoral degree less challenging.
What strategies did you employ to maintain a high level of academic excellence throughout your time at OAU?
I had a study partner, Ololade Ogundijo, and that really helped a lot. I had my best grades in the classes we took together and often struggled when I had to take an elective class. I would not have graduated as the best graduating student without his help and I am super grateful for his support and friendship.
I also enrolled in a lot of campus tutorials and collaborated with colleagues, especially for classes that were very tough and abstract. There was a lot of distraction in the university but I always prioritised my academics and learnt to depend on social interactions with roommates and colleagues for emotional support.
You earned a direct PhD route to Missouri University of Science and Technology to research in synthetic organic chemistry. How did you leverage your undergraduate background to achieve this feat?
Organic chemistry courses were my best classes in the university during my undergraduate programme. When I wanted to start my final year project, it was an easy decision to work on a synthesis project. However, theory is always different from experimental research and synthesis projects can be very challenging. My research experience in organic synthesis set a good foundation for my doctoral degree and I am glad my research is in organic chemistry; I do not think I can be as passionate about any other research area.
Did you receive any scholarship offer(s)? Tell us about it and how you applied for it.
My PhD admission came with a fully-funded Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) offer that included full tuition waiver and $25,000 stipend. There was not a separate application required for the teaching assistantship role but I got some training before I started interacting with students in class. I have been a GTA for about five years and I love teaching students how to navigate their organic chemistry experiments.
What specific areas of synthetic organic chemistry are you most passionate about, and why do you believe they are important in advancing the field?
My PhD thesis is broadly in Organofluorine chemistry. I have worked on two projects that involved investigating more sustainable synthetic methods for trifluoromethylation.
Organofluorine compounds have a huge role in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. This makes investigating how to synthesise them in an environmentally sustainable way of utmost importance. Although perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)––commonly called “forever chemicals”–– are notorious for their environmental contamination due to their inability to degrade easily, the role of organofluorine compounds in drug discovery cannot be overstated.
Are there any role models, mentors or researchers in the field of chemistry who have inspired your decision to pursue this PhD track?
I love that woman and she has always been my role model. Also, my secondary school chemistry teacher, Dr Adebunmi Odefunso also influenced my decision to pursue a PhD in chemistry. She had a profound understanding of the subject and loved reading a lot. Our love for books and learning brought us together and we still have an amazing relationship till date.
The transition to a PhD programme can be demanding. How did you manage your time, handle stress, and maintain a healthy work-life balance?
It was very hard at the beginning. The first few years of my PhD was mainly for coursework and learning fundamental research skills. However, it can be tricky to combine this with teaching students and the transition challenges that come with immigrating to a new country.
Over time, I learnt to stop pushing myself to the edge of burnout, prioritised building relationships, participating in events on campus, and taking a lot of rest.
Did you encounter any challenges in your academic journey? How did you overcome them?
Yes, I did. Some courses were easier for me than others. As an organic chemist, physical chemistry has always been a pain in my neck. Some of the classes I needed to take were very abstract and not within my comfort zone. I usually had to do double the work and study to get an ‘A’ but I never used my weakness as an excuse to fail a class. Whenever I struggled in a class, I made sure I visited the professor during his office hours and explained my challenges. Usually, they shared resources and paid extra attention to me when teaching in class.
Share your thoughts about the culture of excellence, or the lack thereof, among Nigerian graduates.
Nigerian students are hardworking and know how to successfully navigate a complex and stressful academic environment. These skills are very helpful when immigrating to a new country. However, every country has its academic curriculum and it is important for students to be able to adapt as needed. A Nigerian undergraduate education sets the foundation of diligence and resilience but it takes more skills and patience to navigate education and career path in a new country.
What are your long-term career goals after completing your PhD in synthetic organic chemistry, and how do you envision your research contributing to those goals?
I would love to be a senior scientist in a pharmaceutical/chemical company. I am also very passionate about mentoring students and would love to be part of the talent acquisition team in a company.