When Karyn Onyeneho was 31, her grandmother Caroline passed away. His death was premature and doctors said it was due to complications from type 2 diabetes. A naturally curious and compassionate person, Onyeneho researched the disease to find out more about him. She wondered about the loss and wanted to know how she could prevent the rest of her family from falling victim to the same illness.
Even before the death of his grandmother, Onyeneho spent two decades in a persistent search for advances in the field of human genetics and experimental nutrition. She received her BS in Health Sciences and Management from Howard University, her MS in Health Informatics from George Mason University and recently received her PhD in Nutritional Sciences from Howard. She is the first in her family to become a doctor.
“It was surreal,” Onyeneho says of the achievement. “I felt a huge responsibility that I kind of have, not just to be a role model, but to make sure that I’m a role model for the next generation. It’s my blood, like my cousins. They can actually touch, feel and see that I am real, that something not usually considered plausible has in fact come true for me, and that they too can make any dream they have come true.
Although she was born in the United States along with the rest of her siblings, Onyeneho continues to maintain a strong bond with her ancestral home, Nigeria. These roots have kept her anchored in her family and community, keeping her resilient in the fight against malnutrition and unhealthy eating habits.
Onyeneho’s passion for this work is represented on his website, Color of Genes. She created it with the hope of leaving a legacy in the field.
“It’s an educational website involving human genetics and research to help reduce the burden of preventable disease, and otherwise increase our decision-making process when it comes to our health,” says Onyeneho. “If not, hopefully it will somehow increase our level of health literacy.”
We spoke with Onyeneho, one of Charm‘s College Women of the Year 2022, on unlearning bad eating habits, her favorite travel destination and her commitment to fighting malnutrition in her community.
Charm: What is your favorite thing about attending a historically black college or university?
Karyn Onyeneho: The nurturing environment. It feels like family at the end of the day. You belong. You have an additional group of five moms, six more dads. You have a grandparent here and an aunt there. Everyone feels like family.
What’s one of the hardest things you’ve had to unlearn?
How not to eat unhealthy – very simple things you don’t realize you are doing where you minimize or reduce the level of micronutrients the body needs [that could be remedied] simply by eating raisins or consuming more green leafy vegetables.
Also, unlearn to constantly say yes all the time. In other words, protecting my time. So now I work out, I eat healthy, and honestly, I’m an advocate for the very thing I went to school to research, which is making sure we have optimal health, but I want to do it by being an example.
As an African woman, what was it like hanging out at Howard, a predominantly Black American space?
I felt a sense of belonging. You have students and professors in different departments who come from the same communities as me. One of my co-advisors, Dr. Priscilla Okunji, was really instrumental in my growth. She is Nigerian and works at Howard University Hospital as a nurse, but she is also a faculty member. She welcomed me as if I were her child. I felt she was a second mom, but she was also a teacher. I did not feel indifferent. I knew I belonged.
Tell me about your website, Gene color.
I was working full time for the National Institutes of Health while pursuing my PhD full time. I was so impatient and a little bored that there were no resources available to help the public understand simply: What is human genetics? What is human genetic research? What is a genetic test? What is genetic counseling? How do you get rid of this jargon and speak in simple terms to the public to explain how these services can really best benefit your life and the lives of your family members?
You don’t have to dig through this pile of jargon. We can put you in touch not only with resources, but also with genetic professionals who are like you. That’s another issue in health care or human genetics, where often—and it’s not just my opinion; this is scientifically based – you are trusted to share your health information or receive health information from a healthcare professional who looks like you. They can understand your needs, whether cultural, racial or ancestral.
What is your favorite place you have traveled to?
It must be Gaborone, Botswana. I was there in 2018 and was blown away. I was there for research in my second year at Howard University as a PhD student. I was conducting research on malnutrition and wanted to understand the different incidence rates of malnutrition in Botswana compared to the United States. There, I had the chance to visit the country.
They welcomed us with dances. I mean, they were… I can’t even put it into words. We were welcomed by these beautiful people who will tell you that they have nothing, yet they want to give you everything they have. The reporter who was there, we are still friends to this day. She literally welcomed me into her home and gave me her clothes to pick up just because she wanted to pay tribute that I visited their country. The food was amazing, but so was the culture. Still, it’s sad because that was in 2018, when malnutrition rates were incredibly high, especially among children. And in the world, 50% of children still suffer from hunger. Unfortunately, they don’t have the technology that we have here in the United States.
You have three degrees in this area of nutrition and public health. What about that subject that has kept you passionate and dedicated?
It started when I was at Howard as an undergrad when I heard about the food deserts – that, wait a minute, from someone’s zip code you mean he don’t have access to healthy food? Why is there a Whole Foods nearly every five miles in this neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland? But when I go to this part of Prince George’s County, Maryland, I see McDonald’s. I see liquor stores. And for me, that’s devastating.
So injustices and inequalities are not just based on your postal code. Are you telling me that people are treated differently in healthcare based on how they look, based on their skin color? My mom and dad were made fun of because of their deep accents.
I realized what my passion and purpose was in life. To help people who cannot be helped or who have no voice or who are afraid because they do not have citizenship.
How do you relax? Any TV shows you’ve recently liked?
squid game on Netflix. The first time I watched it, I was like, “Wow, that’s creative.” It tells a story of poverty, underrepresentation, struggle, marginalization, all of which are things that I am passionate about in my fight for health equality or equity.
It told the story of people considered less important than others and how they would do anything to get out of debt. It reminded me of my entire academic and professional background, and how I have always sought to help others. I am literally a diversity, equity and inclusion junkie. And so when I learned the background, I literally looked at it again.
I hope to be the change I want to see. I really want to be a leader and a maverick for change. Whether it’s in my current profession at the National Institute of Health or scaling my website, Color of Genes. I really want to be an agent of change in my space – on a macro level it’s STEM, but on a micro level it’s human genetics research.
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