An Epidemiologist’s Journey

From Nigeria to the US with Dr Moboni Mokikan

Judith Ebengho
600-level Medicine & Surgery
University of Ibadan

Can you please introduce yourself?
Hello, Judith. Thank you for having me on Pendical’s JAPA series. My name is Moboni Mokikan. I am from Kaba Local Government Area of Kogi State. I am the first of my mum’s four girls, but I also have two older brothers and a lot of extended family members. I graduated from the University of Ilorin Medical School, Kwara State in 2014.

It’s our pleasure to have you here. What was life like in Nigeria before you left?
Nigeria was like Nigeria (chuckles); it was good and bad.  I mean, everyone had their reason for wanting to leave, but it is just what it was then. I just knew that I wanted to move because I was unhappy with where I was at that phase of my life then.

What are your favourite and worst memories from medical school?
Hmmm… My favourite memories for most of the whole journey are related to the blossoming relationships that were formed, from the first year to the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth years. Till graduation, it was more of the strong, heartfelt, beautiful friendships that I made; and through the years, it has been consistent, evergreen and refreshing for me. When I look back to those times, bonfire nights, outreaches, different activities where you bond with your seniors,  juniors, and find that everybody has a common struggle — medical school — and is just working towards the same goal. You kind of build heartfelt relationships that last the rest of your lifetime.

Then, my worst memory was the constant uncertainty surrounding exams, the feeling of not being enough, of being very dumb, like you had an ’empty skull’ or something. I didn’t like that feeling. Mentally, it kind of does something to you, where you just feel like giving up. It kind of made me just so uncertain about life and I didn’t like it. Even if you had won so many academic awards before medical school or before University, if you are not a very strong person, it could dampen your spirit completely and make you lose it. I know a couple of people who went through that whole phase. And then, I guess the way the lecturers bore down on their students. Consultants would talk to their senior residents anyhow and the SRs would talk to junior residents anyhow. I just did not like the exaggerated hierarchy playing out. Nah, I just decided to step out of all of it.

When did you decide to leave Nigeria?
The whole hierarchy thing made me realise that I probably needed to step out of all that, maybe not even practice medicine and do something else, like public health, something that wouldn’t put me in the clinical space. That’s when I decided I was going to go into public health after medical school, I think in 500 level when I did my community health posting.

I was interested in research but I didn’t know what it was all about then. I felt like it was an avenue I could explore and see where it would lead me to. Now that I have been led through and through, I find that research is very interesting. You don’t need to have so much knowledge before being trained — maybe get a masters, PhD or DrPH. It gives you the confidence you would need to sustain yourself throughout your research career; it’s interesting how that played out for me. 

What did you do between when you finished medical school and when you finally decided to japa?
I already knew that I was going to leave but I still did house job and the national youth service. During my house job, I made some money, was living life and enjoying myself. I made more friends in other parts of the world. 

How did you go about the process of leaving Nigeria?
I did my house job in LASUTH  (Lagos State University Teaching Hospital). There were a lot of house officers from other schools,  from Ukraine, Poland, Ireland, Nigeria and Ghana. People had plans they were already fast-tracking. I needed to know about the UK process, their PLAB journey. I mean, I was thinking in my head, “Oh God! What am I doing about my life?” But I also thought to myself, “You already determined in your heart that you wanted to do your masters. Just pursue that” and I stuck with that.  I started researching how to do that and what was required of me, especially for top schools. That’s when I knew I needed to write a statement of purpose, get my transcripts together and write some English tests.

What challenges did you face during this process?
Putting my application together and requesting my transcript. Thankfully, Ilorin is not as slow as many other medical schools so I put in a request for my transcript and got it in about three months. Then, I started reaching out to my professors for letters of recommendation. I reached out to Professor Akande from public health in the college of medicine in Ilorin then, and to a couple of other professors as well. I felt having Professor Akande among my referees would help because he did public health but it doesn’t matter, you can have anyone in a health-related field if your accomplishments as a student and as a person are adequate. I started getting myself involved in the community. I organised projects and mediated health-related activities, was a team lead for some online courses, volunteered at a nonprofit on safeguarding the Nigerian child and did a couple of other things.

I tried to get my hands on publications but I did not have a good grasp of what to do so I got stuck and just dropped it. However, I did a lot of fieldwork and used that to package my application. I wrote my GRE  and my test. All this was money intensive, so I started working two jobs. You know, just like the way every Nigerian doctor does PP. You take a morning shift at one hospital and do the night shift at another. I was living from hospital to hospital, hardly going home; I only spent alternate Saturdays and Sundays at home. It was a pretty intense period for me and that was all I was focused on at some point in time. I got my admission and was given some form of scholarship. That’s what enabled me to eventually cross over here. 

Wow. Just wow. Have you encountered any racism so far?
The school system is set up in such a way that a professor who does that to you is trying to trade away his career. So, you don’t find those kinds of situations in the school environment as often as you do outside. I never really did experience it even when I started working. I do not have any major recollection of where I experienced racism. With everything that has happened over the past year, especially the George Floyd incident, everybody is now aware of the suppression, the hate and the disparity in treatment towards blacks.

It seems much has truly changed. What are the challenges of being an immigrant from Nigeria?
Well, what are the challenges of just being an immigrant elsewhere? There’s a huge divide between being an immigrant and being a resident. Now, as regards being an immigrant, there is no difference, whether you’re Black, Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic, Mexican, non-Mexican. Some studies say Hispanics have higher rates of mortality than non-Hispanics but it is just about being an immigrant. You’re already deprived of so many things just because you’re not a citizen, so it’s up to you to decide to make the best of the situation you find yourself in. We see this in the picture painted outside — that if you are in a place where you feel marked or not really welcome, you just surrender and try to get yourself out of the situation. Rather than stand there and defend yourself, you just make sure you get out of the situation, knowing that you have a higher goal you’re chasing. So, you have to just stay focused, stay on course to achieve whatever you want to achieve here.

Nigerians are resilient, unwavering, forward-thinking people. That’s all we’ve ever really been known for, so if you can prove yourself, America will open their gates wide for you. I think that’s applicable too to other nations, but I can speak more about America because that’s my experience. It’s not like Nigeria where you have to sort people to get placed. Here, you work for it and get acknowledged for your efforts. You must ensure you are also seeking the right information.  Many things here are very accessible — you have lawyers that you can consult and you have the internet for more information on anything. Make sure you’re here through legal means and stay on course, yeah.

What are some of your hobbies?
Anything that has to do with people, like hanging out with my friends, my people them! I just love chilling with them, gisting, going out to the movies together or even lunch dates with them. I think I love listening to music and occasionally, I love dancing. I also love trying out adventurous stuff. The people that know me already think I’m one cool-headed person, but I stun myself sometimes with what I dare to do. I think the only adventure I have not really thought of is deep-sea diving. But other stuff? I’ve conceived the idea and some of them I have done. 

Your profile on LinkedIn says you are an epidemiologist at the CDC Foundation. Wow! Can you walk us through your journey? How did that happen?
Masters is usually two years, except for a few schools where it’s one year. After my masters, I just started applying for jobs. I got employed at the Tennessee Department of Health initially before I moved to the CDC Foundation in a different state and it has been insightful. All my experiences, my career journey, research experiences, volunteer experiences,  academic achievements, awards, publications and presentations put together have contributed to my profile as a person and given me a competitive edge. At the end of the day, it’s still what you want to make out of whatever situation you find yourself in. So, once I saw the opportunity to move, I moved, and I do not regret it. It has given me more colleagues and connections. 

When you say an opportunity opened up at the CDC Foundation, what do you mean by that?
While working at TDH, I got a notification about an interview with the CDC Foundation. I had applied to so many jobs but I was called when I had already resumed at TDH. A case of ‘cast your bread upon the waters for, after many days, you shall find it again’.

What is it like working as an epidemiologist? Do you work long hours and do night shifts also?
Currently, because the world is in a pandemic, yeah, I’ve been working long hours as a frontline COVID epidemiologist. That sounds nice to say, a COVID epidemiologist — it’s a good brand, you know. It can be pretty exhausting but it’s fulfilling and eye-opening as well. There are so many things that I read in books and heard in class that I’m actually living out now and it’s just exhilarating. I do not do the night shift though.

A lot of people think of mathematics when it comes to most things regarding public health. Do you have to be a genius in statistics before considering a career in epidemiology (public health)?
No, you do not have to. I just had basic statistical knowledge when I started out and then I learned a lot in masters. All that I learned in my masters is what has fostered my interest and knowledge of statistics. In my opinion, if you know already, you wouldn’t be going back to school to learn more.

Do you have any plans of getting into a residency program?
Yes, definitely! I’m currently making some plans at the moment and I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that. 

What do you miss most about Nigeria?
I miss a lot about Nigeria! I miss the traffic conversation, the smell of agege bread. I miss the fact that you can just be walking on the road and chewing boli and epa. Walahi, I love Nigerians and the Nigerian spirit; we are a formidable force if we put ourselves together. This struck me the most during the EndSARS protests last year. I was in tears for my country, not tears of sadness but of happiness and joy, because for once, I saw the unity that our coat of arms has borne all these years. I could not believe it; I was just in awe. I was so happy to be a Nigerian, I still am. I know that deep down within all of us, even with all the werey that we call ourselves on the streets while driving and honking at each other, we’ve got so much love for each other. And yeah, I miss all that. Here, you do not have that — everybody’s minding their own business. You can live with a neighbour for 24 years and never even see their faces. In all, I miss my family and my friends. I try to speak with them often, but it’s not the same as when you get to see them in person.

How often do you visit Nigeria?
Not often. I’ve been to Nigeria once in the last three years. 

Would you ever consider returning to Nigeria to practice?
Never! I mean, never! I ran out of Nigeria to avoid the practice so, no. Maybe to just be a philanthropist, I can do that. But to practice? Oh, no, that’s not my calling. Perhaps if a group of myself and my friends decide to build a hospital and I’d just be among the Board, cashing out, ahhh! I would do that willingly. But an honest comment from me: I would not, because I don’t think I’m interested in the Nigerian type of practice; I’ll be frustrated. 

After medical school, can one just go ahead to do a masters or is a house job compulsory?
I would think it is possible but not advisable. House job is like sealing the deal for all the years of your medical training. A masters is not a replacement for a house job. I think you can try that with the service year and not the house job.

What word of advice do you have for a Nigerian medical student who wants to pursue a career in public health as you did?
Public health is wide. That’s the first thing. Identify what area you think you might want to do. Note I did not say identify the area you want to do because it could change. I did not know what I wanted to do, I just knew that I wanted to do something in public health. In fact, I thought I was going to do something related to occupational health and safety but right now, I don’t think I’m exploring that anymore. I’m exploring research and statistical analysis because I find that more interesting. So, I will just say, for students considering that, go to Google and research the area you think would be best for you. Start building your profile around that, involve yourself in outreach programmes and maybe start shadowing a professor that you think is best in that area. 

Thank you so much, Dr Moboni. You have been amazing.
Thank you for being patient with me and thank you for having me. You guys should take care of yourselves and dream big as well. 

P. S.
Click here to watch our Step-by-step Guide on getting into medical/dental school in Nigeria

Click here to watch our YouTube video on Life as a New Dentist in Nigeria

Click here to watch our interviews with prospective medical students on their reason for studying medicine.

Click here to watch our YouTube video on favouritism in medical school.

Click here to watch our YouTube video with Dr Kiki Omeili | Doctor and Actress in Nollywood.

Click here to watch our YouTube video on why you shouldn’t study Medicine at the University.

Click here to watch our interview with Dr Rebecca Okolo (HealthThenMore) on studying in the UK, the US, and Canada.

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Ebengho Judith Osarumen

Judith Ebengho is a 500-level student of the University of Ibadan. She hails from Benin city in Edo state, the second of four children. Her years of experience in managing a busi- ness social media account for almost three years makes her ideal for this position. Pendical gives her ample opportu- nity to harness her skills for the good of society. She also volunteers at the Nigerian Red Cross society, Jason’s Medical Mission and the Action Group on Adolescent Health (AGAH), where she is currently serving as the disciplinary chairperson. A budding entrerpreneur, she runs a company, Judith’s munir, with three different sub-specialties for now a hair extension retailing branch, an investment branch and a lo-gistics branch. All these she does online.

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