Spotlight on… Nneka Emenyonu
Nneka Emenyonu, Dr.PH., M.P.H., Project Director in Infectious Diseases at the San Francisco General Hospital As told to URBAN ARCH Admin Core staff, March 2020
Tell us more about your academic and research background. What led you into the public health world, more specifically, to Uganda where you have been directing multiple studies on HIV, tuberculosis, and substance use?
I grew up in Nigeria and then came to the US and went to Oberlin College. I completed an undergraduate degree in biology and worked post-grad in a lab where we conducted food outbreak investigations, which I think was my first introduction to public health. Then I became further interested in the field and received an MPH from Johns Hopkins University. After graduating, I started working at UCSF doing breast cancer research. Then there was an opening for a position in Uganda, and I really wanted my daughter who was about one-and-a-half at the time to have the same experience I had growing up in Africa. Even though it wasn’t Nigeria, my home country, it was an opportunity to move to Africa and have my daughter grow up in an environment similar to the experience I had. So, we packed our bags and moved! She was two or two-and-a-half when we arrived in Uganda.
When we arrived, it was the very beginning of PEPFAR. Free medications weren’t available at the time in HIV clinics in Uganda. We arrived when much policy change was happening, and HIV medications were becoming available in the clinics. It was a really exciting time to be in Africa as HIV treatment was finally available. What started in 2003 or 2004 as “Oh I’ll go for a couple of years” turned into about 7 years in the country, and I’ve continued to work in Uganda since then. While I was in Uganda, I became more and more passionate about the work I was doing and enrolled in a DrPH program at UNC Chapel Hill. So, I was traveling back and forth between North Carolina and Uganda, taking online classes from 2 AM to 5 AM on weekdays and then working during the day. It was pretty interesting. That was my path to Uganda. I love working there. I love the people and the work. Every day there is a new challenge, so it keeps you on your toes.
What do you enjoy most about the research you are currently working on? What do you enjoy most about your current position as project director of the Uganda ARCH Cohort?
What I enjoy most is also what I enjoy least: the creative troubleshooting. There is always something that pops up that we haven’t thought about. There is always a new policy or new guideline that just totally throws off our study design, and so we are constantly having to adapt to whatever the policy or guideline or standard of practice is. We always need to understand that although we are collaborating, we are visitors—so whatever the practice is in the clinic takes priority, and we have to work around it, and not impose or disrupt. The onus is on us to try to make it work, which is exciting but can also be stressful. The unpredictability is what I like the least, but it is also what I like the most because it challenges me to think of new ways to make it work.
I love the people that I work with – I think that’s my favorite. Even when I physically left Uganda I was holding on and wanted to continue working in Uganda because of the many years-worth of strong relationships that I had built. When you’re living and working in Uganda you get to know people on a much more personal level than in the US. You really become part of a family—and it feels good to have those good working relationships that actually extend beyond your office work. I enjoy the relationships that I built and continue to build in Uganda, and the time that I spend there is very valuable. My kids say they’re half Ugandan-half Nigerian-half American—that’s 1 and a half people… but that’s ok! They feel very connected to Uganda, so what I had in mind for them kind of worked!
What other public health topics are you passionate about and potentially interested in studying in the future?
I’m really passionate about women’s health. Specifically, I would like to do more work improving the health outcomes of African women. I started my career in breast cancer research in San Francisco, but then was drawn to HIV/AIDS because there was a job opening in public health research in Uganda. A lot of the HIV clinics in Africa have a larger patient population of women than men, so we have many more participants in our studies that are women than we would if we were doing HIV studies in the United States or elsewhere. Because of this, women’s health would be something I’d like to explore more in the future.
Tell us one thing about yourself that readers might find surprising.
I think one thing that most people find interesting is that when I was living in Uganda I didn’t have much of an outlet in terms of what to do for relaxation, and I liked to do my nails a lot, so I opened up a nail spa in Mbarara, Uganda! It was called California Nails. I had so much fun with it! My husband bought all of the equipment from Dubai and shipped it in. I set it up and hand painted flowers on the wall all around, and it became our nice little girls’ getaway. It was the favorite spot in town for all of the women in the office – we would get our nails done every week. People would come from Rwanda and Kampala and it was the spot in town. It is my proudest achievement. It ran for about 10 years. I actually closed it down last year due to logistical issues – the building we were in was falling apart – but I will open it back up again, because everyone keeps asking “where’s our California Nails?” It was really fun.