Since he was 11, the biochemistry grad from Nigeria has been obsessed with the brain. Now, he's a step closer to becoming a brain surgeon.
Written by Tony Dobies
Photographs by M.G. Ellis
When Divine Nwafor was 11, he didn’t read “Harry Potter” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” like many kids his age.
No, he was less interested in spells and wizardry or mythical beasts and fantasy.
Instead, he used his brain to, well, read books about the brain.
To him, the brain was such a powerful tool. But one filled with mystery. Sure,
he knew the heart pumps blood and the lungs bring in oxygen. The brain, however,
is interconnected to just about everything a person does. That simple thought
mesmerized the youngster.
Nwafor will graduate from
West Virginia University
this May with a
degree, a joint degree from the
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
He will continue his studies at WVU in
this fall and one day plans to be a neurosurgeon with a focus on rural medicine.
Nwafor, who was born in Cameroon and lived much of his child and teenage years in Lagos, Nigeria, spent hours reading books from retired neurosurgeon-turned-author Benjamin Carson, the first person to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.
--Ken Blemings, academic officer for the WVU Honors College
I have known Divine for four years but remember specifically being so impressed by his studies on sensory perception utilizing electrodes in moth brains. he demonstrated an understanding of both 'the big picture' as well as the intricate and smallest details.
"When he wrote of the surgeries he performed, I felt like I was there in person just standing right beside him,” Nwafor said. “To me at that young age, I thought that was really interesting.”
His journey, born via Carson’s books some 10 years ago, was brought to life at WVU, as he was able to start asking the backlog of questions he built up while going to private school in Nigeria.
“In Nigeria, you just have to memorize the material. You can’t question things,”
Nwafor said. “I always wanted to argue and find out the best solution to everything,
not just memorize it. That’s something that I really appreciate about WVU.”
Why WVU? Well, he had never visited the campus or knew of the University before
applying. But through YouTube videos, Nwafor saw a sense of community in Morgantown
not easily visible at other universities.
“I saw that WVU was a school filled with a community of people with a particular
spirit that they collectively believed in,” said Nwafor, who was just 17 at the
start of his college career at WVU in 2011.
Once in Morgantown, he began to ask those questions he’d accumulated over the years
“I just get so excited by the brain,” he said. “The questions I have fascinate
me and really draw me to it.”
One in particular seemed to really pique his curiosity. “Why can’t you transplant
a brain like you can every other organ?”
To find an answer, he took part in a neurosurgical internship at Red Cross Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa; he was one of just two students around the world to be selected in 2013. On his first day, he was surprised to scrub in for a hydrocephalus surgery, which attempts to remove build-up fluid from within the brain.
“That got me even more excited. I started to ask ‘when is the next surgery?’” Nwafor said.
His newfound surgical experience led to even more queries – not of just the brain
itself or the surgical processes but of the research going on behind the scenes.
He stretched beyond the human brain to research the brains of moths and their olfactory
processes (smell) and how to improve or negate them. He discovered that moths
could be used to help the military sniff out explosives. Further research into
olfactory processes, Nwafor said, may also lead to answers to diseases and disorders
like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
“I want to get involved in the research, so I can make an impact on patients in
the future,” he said. “Research is the bridge between curing your patient – after
all, most of the drugs and the outstanding movement in medicine are from the
time that people devote to research.”
He shares his knowledge of the brain with students who are curious – just like
he was as a child. As a three-year member of the
, Nwafor and his fellow club members visited various elementary and middle schools
and taught these students how the brain works.
“For the state of West Virginia, these kids are the ones that will lead the state
in the future,” he said, “so we’re trying to get them educated and excited to
push them further.”
I want to get involved in the research, so I can make an impact on patients in the future. Research is the bridge between curing your patient – after all, most of the drugs and the outstanding movement in medicine are from the time that people devote to research.
Nwafor recognizes some of the students gain a new interest in the brain … maybe
even a new passion, just like he did from reading those books when he was 11
“Looking back to my freshman year, I wouldn’t have seen myself as someone who was
making as big of an impact on my community as I am,” he said.
Before starting medical school at WVU, Nwafor will spend the summer in Martinsburg
at a family medicine program to learn more about rural medicine. Living in Cameroon
and Nigeria and learning in South Africa and West Virginia has shown Nwafor the
difference in medical care between rural and urban areas and the rich and poor
– something he’d like to change.
“In Africa, I’ve seen the level of disparity in medicine, and that defeats the
whole purpose of it,” Nwafor said. “That drives me to improve rural healthcare
… I want to push science a step further in those areas.”
He hopes to create diagnostic centers in rural areas to close the gap in medicine
around the world.
Oh yea, he’d also like to be a brain surgeon. People in his field say he’ll change
his mind about that and decide on a different discipline, but Nwafor feels pretty
confident he’ll stick with neurosurgery.
After all, he’s loved it ever since he was 11.