A Love of Learning

For Ron Nwumeh, scientific research is a passion

Ron Nwumeh is living his college years the way many adults wish in retrospect they would have lived theirs: taking the hard classes, exploring his intellectual interests and signing up for every new experience that comes his way. James Byard/WUSTL Photos

Ron Nwumeh is living his college years the way many adults wish in retrospect they would have lived theirs: taking the hard classes, exploring his intellectual interests and signing up for every new experience that comes his way. James Byard/WUSTL Photos

Ron Nwumeh was five when his family moved from Nigeria to the south side of Chicago. There wasn’t much learning going on in the public schools, said Nwumeh, so his parents, a physician and nurse who believed very strongly in education, brought home science and math textbooks.

“My dad made me and my brothers and sisters work through math CDs on the weekends,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was fun but I got addicted to children’s encyclopedias about science. I became so attached to ‘1000 Things You Should Know About Science’ that my dad started to call me professor.”

By the time Nwumeh was in high school, the family had moved to the suburbs where the school system was better. Even so, it is never cool to be a nerd in an American high school.

So Nwumeh, a soccer player during high school, was a surreptitious nerd, winning second place in an online contest for the design of a solar cooker without telling his friends. “I wasn’t very open about my interest in science,” he said. “I just sort of did it on my own.”

It wasn’t until he came to Washington University as a college student that he really opened up, he said. As a Summer Scholar in Biology and Biomedical Research before his freshman year, Nwumeh spent seven weeks in the lab of Professor Joe Jez, a plant biologist.

“I chose Joe’s lab because I had liked working in the garden at home and his lab is all about the fantastic chemistry of plants. It was a natural fit,” he said.

“It was so cool to step into a lab and see how the knowledge is created, and I just loved being a part of the lab family. That’s why I stuck with research as an undergraduate,” Nwumeh said.

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Ron Nwumeh (left) at lunch with Nobel Laureate Thomas Cech (right). Nwumeh spent the summer of his junior year on a tough problem of science: how cancer prevents telomeres (caps on the end of DNA strands) from unraveling, thus helping to make the cells immortal.

Now a senior, Nwumeh has been working with junior Kaleena Zhang on an interesting gene isolated in the lab of Professor Barbara Kunkel. They suspect the gene, from a bacterium called Pseudomonas syringae, makes an auxin, one of a class of plant hormones. Why would a bacterium make a plant hormone? It’s probably part of a game of deception, in which the secretions trick the plants into letting down their defenses so the bacteria can invade them, the scientists say.

As a graduating senior, Nwumeh has won numerous honors already. He has been a uSTAR Summer Scholar, a Global MedPrep Scholar (studying in Shanghai), an HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities (EXROP) Scholar, and a United Negro College Fund (UNCF)-Merck Science Fellow.

Nwumeh, beyond his passion for working on a research team, still finds time for other interests, especially soccer. “I prefer playing midfield because the best players in that position get the ball, find their teammates and make the most beautiful, artistic passes.”

Ron Nwumeh prepares to kick a soccer ball on WashU's campus

James Byard/WUSTL Photos

Nwumeh is now interviewing with medical schools, exploring where his love of learning will lead him next.

by Diana Lutz

 


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