Life and times to Mentorship of Prof GC Onyemelukwe – by Professor Dimie Ogoina
I first encountered Professor GC Onyemelukwe in medical school as a 400-level medical student. Then, he was the head of Internal Medicine Department, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. To all medical students and lecturers, he was a strict disciplinarian who enforced all academic regulations and insisted on strict compliance with rules and codes of conduct. As a result, he was feared by many. His ward rounds were exceptionally long, loaded with probing questions and assignments, but also rich in knowledge and practical skills. Many students dreaded his presence because of the fear of being exposed as ignorant, fear of assignments and fear of meeting up with his standards.
As the Editor-in Chief of ABU Medical student journal (ABUMED) during my final year in medical school, I had approached Professor Onyemelukwe to summarize his inaugural lecture-‘Games Played by Nigerians and Infections-Immune System as Godfathers’- as a paper for publication in our journal. After listening to me, he looked at me straight in the face and said, ‘Go and summarise it’! At first, I thought he was joking. I had observed that the assignment might be above my capacity. But he insisted and said –you can do it!
I had no choice but to accept this challenge. A few weeks later, after reading his inaugural lecture and seeking further clarity on immunology via textbooks, I was able to produce a draft article. When I presented what I had done to him, he was pleased. However, in his characteristic manner, he mentioned innovative ideas, expanded some ideas I had presented and outlined additional topics I needed to explore through reading to enrich the paper. Eventually, I concluded this work leading to my second scientific publication as a medical student titled- ‘Re-Games played by Nigerians and Infections- Immune System as Godfathers’.
After this experience, it took another 3years, after housemanship and NYSC, before I had another close encounter with Prof. Onyemelukwe. This time I was a resident in the department of Medicine, Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH) and he was the consultant in charge of my ward. His ward rounds were very thorough; he asked all sorts of questions and gave a lot of assignments. I particularly appreciated his deep insights in analysing patient’s history and diagnosis, and his ability to broaden the horizon of a patient’s problem and clinical decision.
After completing my junior residency, I approached Prof Onyemelukwe to inform him about my decision to specialise in immunology and infectious diseases. I had taken this decision as a 400-level medical student and my clinical experience as junior resident in internal medicine further strengthened my desire to specialise in this field. When I told him of my decision, he again looked at me straight in the face and said- Are you sure- are you sure you can do it? Your training must be thorough!
Days later, I was officially accepted as a resident training in immunology and infectious diseases under the supervision of Professor GC Onyemelukwe. Some lecturers and colleagues were worried over my decision because they felt it might be difficult for me to keep up with his standards. However, my decision was resolute; I wanted to specialise in immunology and infectious diseases, and if Professor Onyemelukwe was one of the best and most renowned experts in this field in Nigeria, then I had to work under him no matter what it takes.
During our first meeting to discuss the plan for my training he again looked at me and said- go and write up a plan! At this time, a formal curriculum for immunology and infectious diseases had not been approved by both Colleges in Nigeria. As a green horn, I again had to search and read a lot of materials to produce some topics. It was when I presented these topics to him that I knew that he gave me a test. I discovered that he had already been asked to prepare a curriculum by the WACP for the field and he had a draft copy of this curriculum. Going through the curriculum and some of my suggested topics, he painted the picture of how my training will go- I would have to travel to various locations within and outside Nigeria to obtain practical skills, experience, and knowledge on various aspects of infectious diseases and immunology. I was instructed to draft letters to various laboratories and hospitals within and outside Nigeria to get approval for clinical/laboratory attachments. Eventually, through his influence, I was able to obtain admission for laboratory attachments various hospitals and laboratories, including in WHO Poliomylelitis Laboratory in University College Hospital, Ibadan for training in Virology and Department of Parasitlogy and Entomology, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka for training in Parasitilogy.
As a resident doctor in training, Professor Onyemelukwe recognised my interest in the immunology and co-opted me to teach immunology to 400 level medical students of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Tutoring medical students enriched my knowledge and deepened my interest in immunology.
Under Professor Onyemelukwe, my eyes were opened to research, scientific writing, and clinical presentation. On a weekly basis, he was rolling out ideas for research and giving me several assignments. It was as if the assignments never ended; I was hardly through with one assignment before I was given another. I now realise that all these assignments were his way of training me and expanding my knowledge base.
Today, I am both proud and grateful for the opportunity I got to be mentored by Professor GC Onyemelukwe. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to undertake two fellowships (FWACP and FMCP) and two research projects in infectious diseases and immunology under his supervision. I am grateful for the opportunities he gave me to represent him in various high-level meetings, including the Federal Ministry of Health Stakeholders Meeting on Epidemic Prone Infectious Diseases in 2008, where I delivered his lecture on ‘Guidance on public health management of cerebrospinal meningitis in Nigeria’. I am also grateful for the opportunity to publish several scientific articles under his direction.
Looking back, I remember moments when some of my colleagues and teachers queried that I might not complete my training under Professor GC Onyemelukwe because of his extremely high standards and unending assignments. However, today I realise that the ‘style’ of Professor Onyemelukwe’s mentorship was meant to prepare his mentee and students for the challenges of the future. I now realise that under the mentorship of Professor GC Onyemelukwe, I did not only learn research and clinical skills, but life and leadership skills. Professor Onyemelukwe exposed me to thoroughness, multi-tasking, challenging assumptions and striving for excellence. Through him I learnt the benefits of accepting challenges, avoiding excuses, hard work, and perseverance. Without doubt, these skills have contributed immensely to many of my personal and professional achievements in life including been listed as one of Nature’s top 10 scientists in 2022 and one of Time’s 100 most influential persons in 2023.
I pay tribute to my mentor, Professor GC Onyemelukwe, for his enormous contributions to science, medicine, and medical education in Nigeria, and for his sacrifice and dedication in grooming hundreds of physicians and scientists, many of whom have now emerged as outstanding researchers and leaders in their chosen field.
Professor Dimie Ogoina (MBBS, FWACP, FMCP-Infectious Disease, FACP, FIDSA)
Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Niger Delta University
Consultant Physician /Chief Medical Director, Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital