From Cameroon to Houston, Pharmacy Student's Journey Led to UHOdelia Bongmba studied agriculture, but working with elderly changed her path

As a child from a small, farming village in the African country of Cameroon, Odelia Bongmba never could have imagined just how far her desire for knowledge would take her - from Africa to Germany, and finally to the U.S.

A pharmacology doctoral student at the University of Houston, Bongmba began her path to higher education in Yaounde, the capital of her country, where she attended college and earned a degree in agricultural engineering.

 "In Cameroon, the most important thing is agriculture - subsistence agriculture," she said. "When I was growing up, we did a lot of farm work ... so as a young girl, I wanted to do something concerning agriculture."

After working for a few years, Bongmba earned a scholarship to study forest management in Germany. She did her field work in the forests of Cameroon - an experience that would eventually help develop her interest in medicine.

"I was looking at other products from the forest, other than timber," she said. "I discovered that the people in this area relied very much on medicinal plants for their treatments. I collected a number of these medicinal plants, and that started my interest toward doing something medicinal."

After working for a few more years, Bongmba came to the U.S. in 2001 to join her husband, a professor of religious studies at Rice University. While still getting settled in Houston, she took a job working at an assisted living center.

"I had a lot of Alzheimer's patients and people with Parkinson's, so I was thinking, ‘How can I do something to be of help?'" she said. The medicinal plants she collected during her forestry research began to get her thinking about pharmacology as a career.

After doing some research, Bongmba decided the University of Houston was the best place for her to pursue her degree.

 "I don't think I could have a better environment [than UH]," she said.

Because her background was in agriculture, Bongmba said she had a steep learning curve when it came to certain pharmacy classes. But the professors at UH were all eager to see her succeed, she said.

"All of my professors on this faculty are my mentors. They open their doors to you anytime I need them," Bongmba said. "When I got into this program, I came from an agricultural background, so I had quite a bit of difficulty. All of the professors encouraged me."

As an international student, Bongmba appreciates the diversity on campus, as well as in the city of Houston. She said she enjoys collaborating with people from all over the world, who each have different perspectives.

"I have classmates from all over," she said. "I think that has a big role. I think it gives the University of Houston a big advantage."

As part of her research, Bongmba is exploring the role of the signaling protein Rac in synaptic plasticity, learning and memory in Assistant Professor Maria V. Tejada-Simon's lab. Her research could contribute to the search for and development of new forms of therapy that might improve the quality of life for people whose lives are affected by degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

"Just thinking that someday, maybe something can happen and we can get, not a cure, but something that can reduce the proliferation of this disease, it makes me feel really passionate about the project," she said. "If you have a relative who has Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, then you understand why I am so passionate."

As part of the degree program, Bongmba said students are encouraged to attend conferences and present their work - an opportunity she says adds an important dimension to her educational experience.

"In the long term, you can do all of the work in the lab, and have all of the great results, but if you cannot communicate your results to the world, then your research is not useful," she said. "Going [to conferences] makes you know how to present what you are doing."

Because of her success in presenting at conferences, and her research accomplishments, Bongmba was selected for the prestigious Biotechnology Institute Minority Fellowship program, which offered professional development training, career-building skills and mentor matching with biotechnology industry leaders.

"My eyes were really opened," she said of her experience.

As she continues her research, expecting to complete her degree program in 2011, Bongmba said she feels UH is providing her everything she needs to succeed in her chosen career.

"Here, I have a lot of opportunities," she said. "Houston is a big city, and at UH, I have all of the connections that I would need."

The journey to the University of Houston was a long one, but it was worth it to find a place that feels like home, Bongmba said.

"When you like something, you like to keep it close to you," she said. "The University of Houston is opening the doors. ... I think I will always want to remain a part of the University of Houston."

-- By Michelle Klump