For Hometown Grad, Curiosity Paved Way To Historic Advances In Cancer Care

By Janie Magruder – Special for Wrangler News

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When Bukola Obayomi was younger, she wasn’t thinking about dissecting weevils, rewarding rodents for running through mazes or reproductive problems in uterine horns.

Nevertheless, this creative, curious child, wearing three watches on each arm, navigated her way through Kyrene Aprende Middle School and Corona del Sol High School with a thirst for knowledge.

It made sense — Obayomi’s family is well-educated. Her dad, Jacob, a first-generation American born in Nigeria, is an aerospace engineer, and her mom, Janet, works in organizational management.

Brother Ade is a professional dancer in Los Angeles. Last month, the 31-year-old Chandler woman was awarded a doctorate in biology, with a specialization in reproductive physiology, from ASU. Graduation was early in the morning, and she was nervous, just hoping she didn’t trip and that she was smiling at all the cameras. “I didn’t feel anything until my graduation party, and it hit me that I’m finally done with school,” said Obayomi, referring to her ASU experience that spanned 10 years and involved work in seven laboratories.

And now, she is working on cancer treatments at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, in the Department of Translational Neuroscience. “I think cancer research is where I want to be for the rest of my life,” Obayomi said. “I’m excited to see what comes next.”

Exploring science careers at ASU

When she started classes a decade ago at ASU, Obayomi pursued biology and initially planned to go to medical school. She shadowed doctors and volunteered for research, dabbling in entomology, sorting and cutting open beetles and watching mice perform for treats in a behavioral neuroscience lab.

“That was very exciting for me,” said Obayomi, who eventually discovered she preferred working with rodents over physicians. “Insects were cool, but not translatable to humans.”Obayomi earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a specialization in animal physiology and behavior, then pursued a master’s degree.

Her world opened up while working in a lab where mice reproduction was under the microscope.“I just fell in love,” she said. “Reproduction is obviously so important, but not a lot of people study it.”

Tackling a global public health issue

Worldwide, an estimated 15 million babies, more than one in 10 births, are born prematurely, according to the World Health Organization. More than 1 million of them die shortly after birth, and countless others suffer lifelong physical, neurological or educational disabilities. Reducing preterm birth is a public health priority in the U.S., where the rate rose from 10.1% in 2020 to 10.5% in 2021.

In most cases, preterm labor, occurring from 20 through 36 weeks of pregnancy, begins unexpectedly. The causes are unknown, but Obayomi contributed to a growing body of research while at ASU. She earned a master’s in biology, with a specialization in reproductive physiology, in 2017, then began pursuing her Ph.D. Obayomi’s advisor, Page Baluch, assistant director of biosciences in ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, described her as a dedicated student who always wanted to learn and to try new techniques.

“During the past eight years, Bukola learned and mastered the use of many complex instruments such as electron and scanning confocal microscopes, as well as many genomic and analytical tools,” Baluch said. “She also became proficient in many histology-based techniques which also requires a lot of patience and skill.”

Obayomi’s focus for her Ph.D was potential causes of preterm labor involving a novel molecule called tyramine. Among her discoveries was that it is present in the uterine muscle of mice and in the process of ovulation. Because tyramine is involved in and important to other processes, however, Obayomi had to explore ways to degrade it over time, but not block it altogether.

“It was six years of me trying to figure out a way to degrade this molecule, and it was amazing that we found another molecule involved in the reproductive process,” said Obayomi, whose doctoral paper is entitled, “Investigating Tyramine’s Role in the Mouse Uterine Horn.” For now, she said, it is up to more seasoned reproductive scientists to pick up the research and apply it to humans.

What’s next for Dr. Obayomi

This spring, Obayomi began setting up a new lab at the UA’s Department of Translational Neuroscience. Her team will research the development of different targets for existing drugs and treatments for neuroendocrine cancer. “I want do something new to see if the expertise I’ve gotten is transferable to a completely different system,” she said. “The goal is to more successfully treat cancer.”  Baluch said Obayomi brought many new technologies to the ASU lab that are still used today.

Her future is bright, she added. “I am certain that she will be successful in her future career goals because she has the drive, perseverance and enthusiasm to make it happen,” Baluch said.



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