Student Profile: Nnadozie (Dozie) Onunkwo

Graduate student, Nnadozie (Dozie) Onunkwo takes a few moments out of a busy day to share a little about himself.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Riverdale, Maryland, but my family is Nigerian.
Where and what did you study in Undergrad?
I attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff Scholar, where I studied Computer Engineering.
Why did you choose a career in biomedical engineering?
As an undergrad, I was a typical computer engineering student, with no thoughts of entering the biological research world. However, following several technical summer internships, my interest in computer engineering began to fade. During these internships, I learned what it felt like to have no passion for your work. The pay was great, but the thought of programming in front of a computer 40+ hours/week wasn't appealing to me. However, I still wanted to apply my computer engineering skills to a new field.
When considering graduate schools, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Dawn Taylor at Case Western Reserve University about her work in neural engineering. Prior to this conversation, I'd never heard of the development of brain-controlled prosthetic devices for spinal cord injury patients. All I could think was, "That is the craziest research I've ever heard of! How do I get in on this?!" The potential to use my computer engineering skills to potentially help improve lives was very appealing. So I decided to enter the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program at Purdue in August 2006, focusing in neural engineering.
Please tell us about your research.
My research focuses on improving the biocompatibility of neuroprosthetic devices. Through motor prosthesis research, breakthroughs have been made to greatly improve the quality of life for those suffering from spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing neurological diseases, such as locked-in syndrome. By implanting intracortical microelectrodes (IMEs) into the motor cortex, scientists have been able to use neuronal recordings for control of a computer cursor or prosthetic limb in real time. Despite the theoretical promise of IMEs, a major impediment to the utility of these devices is their long-term functionality. Over time, there is a general degradation in the quality of recorded signals that is likely attributable to the reactive tissue response to initial IME insertion as well as to indwelling IMEs, which is characterized by neuronal cell death and scar formation. These responses lower a device's ability to record neuronal signals over time, thus, impeding the long-term use of cortical neuroprostheses to improve the lives of paralyzed individuals. Therefore, strategies must be developed to mitigate the negative effects of this reactive tissue response. 
In Dr. Kevin Otto's NeuroProstheses Research Lab, we are studying both electrical and chemical methods for mitigating the neuronal cell death and scar formation that occurs following chronic IME implantation. One potential strategy is to encourage the growth of neuronal processes toward indwelling IMEs via DC electric fields (DCEFs), which would decrease electrode-neuron distance and enhance the ability to record neural signals. Preliminary in vitro studies have been conducted to study the ability of DCEFs to induce directional growth of neuronal processes.
A second strategy to mitigating these negative effects is to reduce scar formation following a brain injury by down regulating the release of inflammatory cytokines, such as the interleukin family and tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α). In vitro experiments modeled a brain injury by treating 7-10 day old cortical cultures with TNF-α. Results suggest our treatment may reduce cellular response by reducing inflammatory cytokine production, resulting in lowered impedance and more reliable long-term neuronal recordings. Future in vivo experiments will test both hypotheses.
What are your hobbies and interests?
One of my major hobbies is working out. In my opinion, it is one of the best ways to relieve stress that accumulates as a graduate student. It also helps to keep me healthy and full of energy throughout the day. I’ve also been a music producer since Summer 2006. It began as a hobby just to pass the time. However, once I started, I really fell in love with it. I currently collaborate with hip-hop and R&B artists at Purdue to create unique music. 
What do you think is your defining trait?
My defining trait is my discipline. As a teenager, I was not a very disciplined person. In high school, I was able to obtain good grades without significant effort. I was easily influenced by others and did things that I knew had no business doing. But when you are undisciplined with your life, you're bound to experience things that can change your life forever, and I was no different. Once these events occurred and I made it out unscathed, I told myself, "Dozie, this is your second chance. If you continue to be undisciplined with your life, you are finished!"
From that moment on, I vowed to be the most hard-working, disciplined person there is. When you're young, it is so easy to be taken off course. However, my life-changing events were a blessing in disguise. At age 19, I re-focused my efforts into excelling in classroom. Before considering any activity in college, I would make sure that my school work was completed and of the best quality. This approach allowed me to obtain my computer engineering degree in 4 years, when many people told me that it was impossible. This approach also gave me the confidence to enter a biomedical engineering Ph.D. program when my most recent biology course was in the 9th grade. Many people told me that I was crazy. But when you have the right mindset, you can accomplish anything, as long as you are willing to put in the time and effort.
Now, with my second graduation approaching, my next goal is to excel within any company that I am fortunate enough to work for. I truly feel that I can enter any work environment and be successful, no matter how difficult it may seem to others. My discipline is the trait that has carried me through graduate school, and will carry me through any future endeavor successfully. You might be able to get in the game without it, but you'll never make it to the Hall of Fame.
What are your goals after graduation?
After graduation, I'd like to pursue a career in healthcare consulting or product development with a medical device company. My experience with the Biomedship Program exposed me to many of the decisions that are made when developing, marketing, or improving a medical device. I believe the knowledge gained through that program, combined with the problem solving skills that were greatly improved through independent research, has prepared me for that career. Within 5-10 years, I'd like to start a company within the biotech industry and explore entrepreneurial ventures in Africa. Lastly, after retiring from a successful career as an entrepreneur, I'd like to become a professor and share all of my knowledge.
Tell us about your current involvement on Purdue's campus.
I'm currently involved with Purdue's Boiler Music Group. This organization provides a setting for musicians of all genres to collaborate on music and improve our craft. I provide artists with instrumentals, then assist with the recording and mixing of their songs.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Before deciding to come to Purdue, I really questioned whether it was the right place for me. Being from the Washington DC area, I was used to being in a big city, and was unsure about getting out of that comfort zone. But as my time at Purdue comes to a close, I know that attending Purdue was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The Biomedical Engineering Department and my advisor have taken care of me from the first day, and the resources at Purdue are outstanding. In the near future, I hope meet other Purdue alumni and friends to share our experiences and build relationships.
Thanks, Dozie. Best of luck to you in all of your future endeavors! We look forward to watching you and your career.