Jackson State Mourns Esteemed Biology Professor Stephen I. N. Ekunwe

Was responsible for training a slew of undergraduates and graduate students in molecular biology and cancer research who went on to earn PhD’s.

By: Jelani Zarif, Ph.D., MS

In the recent months, the HBCU Digest has covered HBCU Voices of STEM Excellence, highlighting a cadre of HBCU alumni who’ve earned doctorates in STEM. One of the primary figures in building that cadre is Stephen I. N. Ekunwe, a professor of Biology at Jackson State University who died last month, leaving behind a living legacy of countless Jackson State students who have forged paths to the Ph.D. and professoriate.

A two-time graduate of Jackson State, Dr. Ekunwe earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology from Michigan State University under the mentorship of Dr. Loren R. Snyder. He returned to his alma mater to teach undergraduates and train/mentor student researchers, and became popular among students within the department due through his lecture style and humor.

“To this day, I use the strategy he told us helped him remember the Shine/Dalgarno sequence — African Good Girl African Good Girl,” said Derrick White a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Microbiology & Molecular Biology.

Well-respected among his peers as he served as associate chair of Biology for several years before earning the rank of full professor.

“Dr. Ekunwe was true asset to the department of Biology evidenced by so many of his former students matriculating to terminal degrees. JSU has truly lost one of their greatest gems!” said Dr. Ronald Bozeman, who completed his Masters’ thesis with Dr. Ekunwe and went on to earn his Ph.D. in Molecular Carcinogenesis from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Dr. Ekunwe served as professor for the genetics (lecture and lab) courses and taught graduate level genetics courses along with running a funded research laboratory with study focus on extracts from the medicinal basil, ocimum gratissimum, and its effects on cancer cell proliferation and movement. His laboratory worked extensively in this area as well as in the area of natural products attempting to isolate the active agent from this medicinal extract.

“Dr. Ekunwe aided me in making the department better for our students and in turn, he made the University better” said Dr. Timothy Turner, chair of the Department of Biology at Jackson State University.

I first began conducting prostate cancer research as an undergraduate researcher and masters student. Prostate cancer is still the focus of my research as postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins. Members from our laboratory typically worked long hours and on weekends. On many occasions, the campus security guards had to let us inside of the John A. Peoples, Jr. Building.

“Dr. Ekunwe always brought out the very best in his student trainees! Being a member of his laboratory prepared me for the rigors of Ph.D. benchwork and ultimately helped me obtain my doctorate degree” stated Dr. Tamica Collins, a recent graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine who conducted her Masters’ thesis with Dr. Ekunwe. “I always admired how close-knit members of his laboratory were.”

“He deeply cared about his mentees and seeing each of them succeed in science,” says Dr. Talia Sanders who earned her Ph.D. in Environmental Science from JSU. “Dedicated, intelligent, and outspoken are only a few of the loving characteristics Dr. Ekunwe possessed. Doc’s honesty is what I admired the most. I loved working with him and found his daily million and one to-do list interesting. With him, I was able to excel in gaining valuable knowledge and skills leading to a master’s and doctoral degree. I’m not afraid of the challenges that may come because I’ll always have him in the back of my mind, helping me along the way.”

Along with his humor, Dr. Ekunwe was regarding for his direction on problem solving and scientific approaches.

“Dr. Ekunwe was a truly wonderful man, and I’m forever grateful for having crossed paths with him” said Dr. Sakeli Hall who earned her Ph.D. in Environmental Science in 2015 from JSU. “I learned life lessons from being a member of the Ekunwe laboratory” said Melvanique Hale BSN, MS a Pediatric Oncology Nurse at St. Jude’s Hospital.

“He taught me so many things about approaching problems in the lab the correct way that once I started my Ph.D. program, I was head and shoulders above peers that came from your proverbial top-tier schools” said Dr. Bozeman.

“Of the many things I remember about Dr. Ekunwe and what stands out the most was his patience with new trainees,” stated Dr. Sara Conard who earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and currently is a postdoctoral Fellow at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I am truly grateful for the opportunities I have received because Dr. Ekunwe took the time to patiently train a freshman undergraduate student. My initial research training in his laboratory definitely played a vital role in my current career.”

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