Deidre Okeke MPH '17 remembers the day her little brother almost lost his life due to an asthma attack. She also remembers how her father, an emergency medicine physician at the time, saved his life.
It’s this memory that has driven Okeke to pursue a path that will, one day, improve the health of people worldwide. Today, she is a doctoral student of epidemiology at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.
She is one of three Panthers who became the first FIU students inducted into the prestigious Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. Adrian Figueroa, a doctoral student in the Earth Systems Science program, and Ikechukwu (Ike) Onwuka, who graduated last week with a Ph.D. in earth systems science, received the honor alongside Okeke earlier this year. The three have entered a society that includes some of the most talented students from less than 20 universities across the country, including Yale, Cornell, Emory and Johns Hopkins.
The Bouchet Society is named for Edward Alexander Bouchet, the first African American Ph.D. recipient in the United States. The society recognizes outstanding scholarly achievements and promotes diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate. It seeks to develop a network of preeminent scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence and foster environments of support.
"Becoming an institutional member of the Bouchet Society underscores the caliber of the FIU doctoral students, the cutting edge research they carry out, and their commitment and passion for their communities," said Alla Mirzoyan, senior director of training and fellowships at FIU's University Graduate School.
As a society member, Okeke will have access to networking and new opportunities that she hopes will help catapult her into her dream role as a broadcast medical correspondent.
Her professors have no doubt she will reach her goal.
“Deidre is able to present challenging concepts in data science in an engaging and approachable manner,” said Gabriel Odom, an assistant professor of biostatistics. “She has the foresight and vision to anticipate challenges in science communications to a lay audience that I don’t even have.”
We spoke with Okeke to learn more about her journey at FIU — she began as a grad student earning a master of public health — and her motivation to enter public health and medicine, earn her Ph.D. and, utlimately, work as a medical correspondent.
Where are you from and what brought you to Miami?
I am a native New Yorker. I'm from Long Island. Initially, I was intending to go to med school — I was at George Washington University at the time. My best friend randomly told me to take 'Intro to Public Health.' She's like, 'Dee, I know you’re focusing on medicine, but take this with me.' And I was like, 'Okay, why not?' I realized, sadly, that I was learning more that would be relevant to the practice of medicine through public health than I did in my biology classes.
So, I came down here to Florida because I was tired of the cold and wanted to start my new journey in public health in a completely new (and warm) environment.
You could have gone to other schools. Why did you choose FIU?
At other schools, I felt like I was just an ID number. No one knew who I was. FIU left such a mark because it took a personalized approach in getting to know me. It’s not something I ever experienced before, so I was like, 'Let me commit to this school.'
Long story short, I earned my MPH [Master of Public Health] at FIU’s Stempel College, which was an amazing experience. I thought then of moving forward with a doctorate and began exploring my options. One of my uncles advised me to go to a university where I would feel like I was going to be mentored strongly. Mentorship is key at this point. He did not lie.
I was between FIU and an ivy league school. For the ivy, I tried reaching out to [the person] I wanted to be my major professor. Radio silence, nothing. But with FIU, it was constant engagement. And I was like, 'I see the signs, what else do I need?' So, that's how I'm here.
What inspired you to pursue a doctoral degree?
It was my dad. He was an emergency room physician and I got to see him in action once with my baby brother, who had bad asthma at the time. I remember playing video games one day and then seeing my brother just drop the controller. My dad was getting ready to leave for work at the hospital, but then he heard my mom scream for help. I saw my dad move with such calmness as he helped to resuscitate my brother. I remember seeing sweat beads fall off my dad’s face, knowing very well his son could die right there, but he was calm.
When my brother finally was able to breathe again, I was like, 'I want to do what my dad does. My dad is saving people.' This is a skill I wanted so that I could make an impact on somebody’s life.
How will a degree in public health help you do that?
While my dad made lasting impacts through one-on-one clinical care, my degree in public health will allow me to make population-wide impacts. Through my specific program and the training my college supports, I am gaining skills in the use of statistical methods and data analysis techniques to identify patterns and risk factors associated with various health outcomes.
In addition, I am learning how to translate findings into interventions and even evidence for policy change and creation. Overall, I see myself following my father’s footsteps. However, I am also honoring his wishes by extending my reach beyond what he was able to achieve. By pursuing a degree in public health, I am confident that I will be able to make meaningful contributions to the field and have a positive impact on the health and well-being of populations.
As a doctoral student, what research are you working on?
I am researching the associations between ethnic discrimination faced in social media and depressive symptomology among Latinx emerging adult college students.
My mentor, Miguel Ángel Cano [previously an associate professor of epidemiology at FIU’s Stempel College and currently an associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center], did a large study where he asked 628 participants the question: “Do you face ethnic discrimination on various types of social media platforms?” Learning about this interested me and led me to discover the emerging field of digital epidemiology, which focuses on utilizing digital data sources to study health outcomes and behaviors.
What I’m doing is looking at his survey and seeing what interpersonal factors are either buffering, exacerbating, or mediating levels of depression among those who experience ethnic discrimination on social media. I'm looking to see what type of associations exist.
What do you aspire to do after you graduate from your doctoral program?
My long-term goal is to be a medical correspondent who has doctoral training in epidemiology. I enjoy communicating with others, and I am passionate about public health.
What led you to want to pursue this career path?
For one, my father has been a key influence in my life. His work inspired me to pursue a career in health, which eventually led me to study the hard sciences, including inorganic chemistry, physics, biochemistry and more. Although the textbooks were often intimidating, my father’s ability to simplify complex ideas through clever acronyms and wordplay helped me navigate the material and sparked my interest in effective communication.
During my time at Stempel College, I was exposed to public speaking, an area in which I previously lacked confidence. Through practice and perseverance, I developed skills in this area and discovered my love for communicating with others. As I progress through my doctoral studies, I am struck by the vast array of knowledge that exists in the scientific community. However, I am also aware of the limited ways in which this knowledge is shared with the broader public.
As a medical correspondent, what impact do you hope to make?
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of science communication, where accurate and effective messaging can save lives. As a medical correspondent, I aim to take up this challenge by conveying complex scientific ideas through engaging storytelling techniques, multimedia platforms and other innovative strategies. By doing so, I hope to empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health and well-being.
My love for communication and public health, combined with my dedication to research, has led me to believe that pursuing a career as a medical correspondent is not only the most natural fit for my skill set but also the best way for me to make a meaningful impact in the world.