Interviews with Scientists: Dr Enitome Bafor
Dr Enitome Bafor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). She is currently leading a research project on autoimmune reproductive failure. She was also the overall winner of our Lab Heroes Awards 2018, for which she was nominated by numerous colleagues for her academic achievements, passion, and dedication to her research.
As we are preparing to launch our 2021 awards, we thought it would be great to catch up with Enitome to find out how her career has progressed since then, what she is working on currently and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her work.
It’s great to speak with you again, Enitome! Firstly, please tell us about your current role...
I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Laboratory of Cancer and Immunometabolism (LCIM), Centre for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health (NIH). I work with a great and supportive research team and currently lead a research project on autoimmune reproductive failure under guidance from my PI.
What is the focus of your current research?
My current research is on understanding reproductive failure in the context of autoimmunity and cancer. My PI’s laboratory developed a model of preclinical chronic inflammation with persistent interferon-gamma expression. I am looking to identify cellular and humoral perturbations within the reproductive system under these conditions. I am also looking to develop targeted therapies for autoimmune reproductive dysfunction.
What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
I generally enjoy new challenges in my work and research and get very dissatisfied when my work becomes monotonous. I like to develop new ideas, new strategies and have new ways of thinking about my research. Moving to the NIH gave me another opportunity to tackle a new research challenge which I enjoy. Before coming to the NIH, my focus was mainly on the physiology of reproduction, and I also investigated drug interactions in the reproductive system. My quest for increased knowledge on my research area of interest led me to the University of Strathclyde, UK, for my PhD, where I acquired skills in metabolomics and medicinal chemistry research. I used these skills to continue interrogating the female reproductive system. I also had an excellent opportunity to train at the University of Liverpool, UK, where I gained skills investigating human myometrial physiology. At the moment, I am developing my research expertise in reproductive immunology and I enjoy learning and investigating the complex interactions of the immune network with the reproductive system. It has been an eye-opener, and I have enjoyed every moment of the learning process. That is not to say there have been no difficulties or challenges so far, but it has been and still is a worthwhile experience.
You were the winner of our Lab Heroes award in 2018. How did it feel to be celebrated by your colleagues in such a way?
I was honored and grateful to have been celebrated by my colleagues. It was great to be recognized, and I thank Hello Bio for creating this award. We all work hard in our laboratories worldwide under different circumstances, particularly female scientists. Often, it may seem that despite our best efforts, our achievements are insufficient, or our actions are not productive. Other times it may seem like we are climbing up a waterfall as we navigate our scientific journey. At such times, a kind word, an acknowledgment, or a gentle pat on the back can make a world of difference and even provide much-needed motivation. For these reasons and more, I appreciate the comments of those who nominated me in 2018 and 2019. It is nice knowing that our efforts have not gone unnoticed.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work and research?
The pandemic altered our laboratory times and schedules. Understandably, we could only go into the laboratory at specific times and days on resuming in-person laboratory work. It considerably slowed the pace of my research. I had set clear targets for my research and could not meet up with my timeframes.
Are there any aspects of the pandemic that have been unexpectedly positive for your life/career?
Indeed, there have been some unexpected positives. On a professional note, I had the opportunity to attend several training opportunities and courses virtually, which I would otherwise have been unable to attend in person. I also participated in and presented my work at several conferences and meetings, some of which would have been impossible in person. I hope that these virtual events are here to stay as it gives a unique chance to people who are unable to attend in-person either due to family or work responsibilities or lack of funds. On a personal note, I spent more time with my children, which was great since we had all just moved in from a different country, and settling down had been a bit challenging.
Women and people of color remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What can be done to improve diversity in science?
This topic is particularly relevant and vital and should be discussed and implemented in every STEM organization and at every level of authority. I have always believed that the first step in addressing this issue is to ask ourselves why. Why are women of color underrepresented in science and related fields? I think the answer is multifactorial, and each contributing factor should be addressed independently. I believe that people of color (including women) are interested in STEM fields, but the opportunities and resources are not available to us. In other words, underrepresentation in STEM is not due to a lack of interest but to a lack of opportunities and eventually discouragement. I know women who have had a desire to improve their skills and knowledge in science and have applied to several organizations worldwide but keep getting rejected. Sometimes their background or location may have prevented their exposure to specific skills and knowledge that would have made them competitive for the positions. Other times there has been a dash of bias. Family responsibilities and poor mentorship may also be contributing factors. Solutions to tackling this issue are, therefore, more complex than they should be. Due to space restrictions, I will provide only two suggestions for this issue, the first is awareness, and the second is mentoring. Increased awareness of both the problem and the solution to organizations, authorities, and people of color is highly relevant. Women of color also need mentoring from people like them and from people who have made it or are making it in their science careers. Women of color need active support and championing from male mentors as well. Mentors can assist by providing advice, suggestions, and opportunities and standing up for their mentees whenever possible.
You are a great mentor to many female scientists. What do you enjoy most about mentoring?
I have had the unique opportunity to have mentored several young women (and men) in science of all ages. I have always seen myself as a voice for when they are not or cannot be heard and a beacon of hope that success is possible as a woman or person of color and also as a mother in science. I have enjoyed meeting and interacting with women from different backgrounds, and I hope to continue to meet more of them as I continue on in my career. I enjoy watching them transform or begin the process of transformation into the women they aspire to be. But, most of all, I enjoy seeing hope renewed in these young women during our mentoring period.
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
I have great role models, and interestingly they come from all walks of life. I have role models in science, arts, film and music industry, and politics. I have always admired strong women. For me, strength is not about muscle but a strength of will and purpose, defying the odds. We all have a choice, a choice to press on or back down. We have a choice to settle for less or more, to make huge sacrifices, or be the best we can be under extraneous circumstances. My role models are strong, resilient women who have chosen to pull others up as they climb that waterfall to success.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
I will provide two important lessons. First, perseverance and hard work pay in the long run. Second, never neglect self-care. In my experience, it is not hard work alone that brings success but hard work and perseverance. It is easy to get discouraged from our efforts and commitment, but perseverance takes my hard work and pulls me over. It is also easy to neglect self-care when working round the clock, committing mental and physical energy to several tasks at once. However, if we do not stop from time to time to care for ourselves, we burn out and lose much more.
How do you see your career progressing, and what do you hope to be doing in 10 years?
I will be tenured and a leader in the field of reproductive immunology. I will have made exciting discoveries that will address current reproductive health issues, including cancers associated with the reproductive tract. In addition, I will be advocating for underrepresented women in science.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most?
My hobbies have been very fluid. Now, I enjoy gardening. There is something special and calming to me about nurturing and caring for plants. I can spend hours with plants, especially ornamental plants, learning about them and nurturing them. I also like baking. I like trying new baking recipes, but I generally prefer recipes that do not take much time. For example, I just recently learned a bread recipe that does not require much time and effort.
And finally... is there anything else you would like to tell us, e.g. specific issues or initiatives in life science that you are passionate about?
I have faced and endured many challenges in my scientific journey. It has by no means been an easy path. Still, I love science, and I know that my discoveries will one day contribute no matter how little to reproductive health therapies or at least, guide someone else, with the resources, in the path to making these much-needed discoveries. For this reason, I keep pressing on. I hope to share my story with the world someday. I hope that my story will motivate people, especially women who are going through similar challenges and are on the verge of giving up.
Regarding initiatives, I will publish books on my memoirs and mentoring after my postdoctoral fellowship. I have learned that scientific success and output is not just about one's intellect but also a summation of all that happens outside the laboratory to make that fully functional and capable scientist. I therefore want to share my experiences to motivate and inspire people. I also want to share my mentoring experiences and tips, especially about mentoring people from disadvantaged backgrounds or underrepresented communities.
The views expressed here are those of the author and should not be considered the views of the NCI, NIH, or the DHHS.
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview, Enitome! We look forward to reading your memoirs in the future!
Connect with Enitome:
LinkedIn: Tome Bafor
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