Pharmacology wasn’t Uche Anadu Ndefo’s first passion.
She actually wanted to be a broadcast journalist, but that wasn’t the type of profession her Nigerian parents dreamed about for her. They told her she needed to choose one of the more traditional Nigerian careers: physician, nurse, pharmacist, engineer or lawyer.
“I think there are five acceptable things that we can be,” Ndefo said. “They told me, ‘Pick from that and find your happiness.’”
She became a pharmacologist, but found her true happiness as an educator, which gives her the opportunity to write and publish, “a backdoor way” of doing what she wanted to do in the first place.
Family is everything
An associate professor of pharmacy practice at Texas Southern University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Ndefo was born in Nigeria, but moved to the United States as a baby when her father started a Ph.D. program and her mother entered a master’s program.
Three years later, the family returned to Nigeria and stayed for a decade. Those were Ndefo’s formative years, the stretch of time when she became immersed in her native language and culture.
The family ultimately headed back to the U.S. when Ndefo was a teenager so her mother could earn a Ph.D. in public health.
Since health and education are part of the family’s DNA, Ndefo’s Ph.D. in pharmacy is a source of family pride.
“My dad loves it. He brags about it. He addresses letters to me as ‘Doctor,’” Ndefo said. “I’m like, ‘Really dad? You’re sending a letter to your daughter. Why the formality?’”
Family is everything to Ndefo, and her townhome at the edge of West University reflects that. Outside, visitors will find evidence of a house full of boys: a driveway basketball goal and lots of toys in the back yard. Inside, family photos of Ndefo, her husband and their three sons adorn the walls. Eclectic wall paintings depicting international cities are souvenirs from her husband’s travels.
Everywhere, there are tributes to Africa, including native head statues from Zambia, a gift from her father-in-law to her husband to commemorate his birth.
It’s that love of family that drove Ndefo to apply for the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, awarded to academics born in Africa. Ndefo earned a spot to work with professor Godswill Onunkwo at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, on developing the curriculum for a new Doctor of Pharmacy program, which will emphasize preceptorship and rotations.
Currently, pharmacy students in Nigeria only earn bachelor’s degrees and receive little clinical training, yet they play a vital role in health care because a pharmacist may be the only health care professional a patient sees.
Ndefo’s lack of confidence in her homeland’s health care system boiled over about a week before she was to travel to Nigeria to work on the new curriculum. Her father, who was visiting family in Nigeria, fell ill with malaria. Rather than admit him to a hospital, Ndefo arranged for a doctor to come and stay with him.
“That’s part of why I know that I’m not done with whatever I need to do in Nigeria,” Ndefo said. “Just the thought of him having to go to a hospital, it scared me so much.”
Her father recovered from his illness, and that was a sign to Ndefo that she was in the right place at the right time. Her goal was to change how pharmacists are educated and how they operate in Nigeria, so she won’t be afraid the next time a loved one has to go to the hospital.
Education for Nigerian pharmacy students includes reading books and learning to follow the rules, but their only hands-on experience comes during six weeks of rotations with different types of pharmacies, including community, hospital and ambulatory. In the U.S., pharmacy students spend their final year of school gaining this sort of tactile training, Ndefo said.
Ndefo wants Nigerian pharmacy students to do six weeks of rotation in each of the three areas, and she wants to get them in front of patients. But she has encountered some push-back.
At first, Nigerian educators and medical practitioners told her that they weren’t interested in changing the program. To help make her case, Ndefo joined the Nigerian Association of Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists in the Americas and became a member of the education committee. As part of that committee, she spoke with colleagues about giving pharmacy students more tactile experiences with patients. The association supported her quest for change.
“We had witnessed first-hand how it was being done in Nigeria,” Ndefo explained. “The organization stood behind, ‘It’s time to make it a little more clinical and a lot less science-y.’”
Making a case
The Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program also supported the cause. One of the program’s goals is to fight the “brain drain” African countries experience when people with means leave the continent to pursue other jobs and opportunities.
Ndefo says it is unlikely that Nigerian-born pharmacists making six-figure salaries in the U.S. would choose to return to work in Nigeria, where they might make $100 a month. Most people are just not going to do that, she said.
“We kept making our case and eventually, they realized that, at the end of the day, it’s really all about getting the best care that we can to patients, especially in Nigeria, where if I don’t have the money to see a doctor, I’m just going to go to the pharmacy and buy something,” Ndefo said.
Ndefo wants to ensure that pharmacists in Nigeria know how to interact with patients, know what to look for and know when to say, ‘This is way beyond my scope, and you really do need to go see a physician.’”
The program officially launches this summer, and Ndefo has applied to be one of the teaching pharmacists. She should find out if she has been accepted in the next couple of months. Until then, she will continue to fine-tune the program.
When students graduate, she said, they will understand the practice of pharmacy and they will know how to be pharmacists.
“Our goal,” she said, “is to empower them with the tools they need.
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