Gaining hands-on experience at the National Institutes of Health

As an Amgen Scholar, Djatougbe Nadine Dogbe ’19 is working with researchers in the Genetic Services Research Unit at the National Institutes of Health — an experience that she hopes will prepare her for a career in public health.

Shortly after Djatougbe Nadine Dogbe ’19 graduated from high school in her home country of Togo, her dad had a serious accident that opened her eyes to the importance of public health.

“We got to the hospital and there were not enough beds to take care of all the patients, so we had to wait in the car for two hours even though he needed attention right away,” she says.

When they finally did get into the hospital, it was clear that the medical professionals didn’t have the resources they needed.

“There was no sink for the doctors to wash their hands,” Dogbe says. “They were washing their hands out of plastic water bottles. One person would hold the water and the other would wash their hands. I knew people were dying a lot from the hospital, and the first thing that occurred to me was ‘Isn’t there any regulation?'”

That experience helped propel Dogbe, a biology major at St. Olaf College, to pursue a career in public health. In addition to the work she is doing on campus, she is getting hands-on experience this summer after being selected to participate in the Amgen Scholars Program.

Amgen Scholars is an international program funded by the Amgen Foundation. The program partners with 17 leading educational and research institutions in the United States, Europe, and Japan to host undergraduate students in research labs. Participants are able to conduct research under world-renowned faculty mentors as well as attend symposiums, seminars, and networking events.

Djatougbe Nadine Dogbe ’19 with Hugh Kenety ’14, the alumnus who encouraged her to apply to St. Olaf, in Ghana.

Dogbe is working with researchers at Genetic Services Research Unit (GSRU) at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Their work focuses primarily on exploring the experiences of individuals undergoing genetic risk assessment, as well as characterizing the psychological and social implications of learning genetic risk information, living with a genetic disorder, or being a caregiver of someone with a genetic disorder (e.g., coping and adaptation).

She hopes this experience will introduce her to the field of research, and hopefully apply those skills to her future professional goals.

“My dad and my mom have taught me that life might not give you everything, but you can work hard to create those opportunities — and that’s the mentality that drives me,” Dogbe says.

After earning her high school diploma in Togo, Dogbe won a Diversity Immigrant Visa that enabled her to come to the U.S. After making the journey by herself, she enrolled at Montgomery College in Maryland. She was a full-time student and employee at the community college to pay for her tuition. It was there that she met St. Olaf graduate Hugh Kenety ’14, who encouraged her to apply to St. Olaf.

Now in her second year on the Hill, Dogbe is pursuing her biology studies and finding ways to make a difference. She is currently working on a project to send books, computers, and other equipment to her former school in Togo.

Dogbe says as a student in Togo, she didn’t have access to computers. She only learned to use them, she says, when she arrived in the U.S. “These kids in Togo have so much potential,” she says. “I feel like it would be worth it to invest in that. If someone had done that for me, I would have been really happy about it.”

As she thinks about the needs of her homeland, Dogbe is looking to neighboring countries in West Africa to see their approach to public health. During a visit to West Africa, Dogbe traveled to Ghana and made note of the cleanliness of the country.

“Ghana actually has rules for trash and when you look at their country, it’s clean. But when you go back to Togo, you see a gigantic pile of trash on the side of the highway next to the houses. You see kids playing with this,” she says. “It struck me that they don’t have any regulation for environmental laws. They don’t have any regulation for hospital policies. And I was able to tie those things to public health.”

The challenges she faces in bringing meaningful public health changes to Togo might be great, but Dogbe is determined — and optimistic.

“We’re always positive,” she says. “You wake up every day and you know that this day might be like yesterday, but you still go on. That is what has been keeping me going this far.”