Dr. Flora Ukoli wanted to be an engineer.

However, her father pushed her to pursue medicine, a more conventional career for Nigerian women in science.

Now, Ukoli is a professor at Meharry Medical College in the areas of preventative medicine and public health.

When Ukoli first started her clinical rotations as a med student in Nigeria, she wanted to be an OB-GYN, but the late nights deterred her.

“OB doctors never sleep,” she said.

As she furthered her studies, she felt a calling toward public health and health education.

“I like public stuff, and all the public health concepts just appealed to me naturally,” she said. “I feel that health care should be free to everybody all the time.”

One of Ukoli’s current public health initiatives involves encouraging mothers to breastfeed. She said that even for mothers with COVID-19, breastfeeding is safe as long as the mothers wear a mask.

Ukoli came to America for the first time in 1978 to look into a master’s program in Michigan. She thought that because she played sports, she would be able to get a scholarship. However, she soon realized that college sports in America were more “professional.”

Ukoli went to the United Kingdom for her first master’s degree and then back to her native Nigeria. In 1994, she came to Pitt. Her original plan was to come as a research professor, but the only way the school could get her in the country was as a master’s student.

After returning home, Ukoli and her two daughters wanted to come back to America. In 1997, they found a way with Ukoli working at Howard University as a researcher.

There, she studied prostate cancer among African Americans, African migrants and native Africans.

In 2003, she moved to Nashville to work at Meharry on the recommendation of another Nigerian who lauded the close partnership with Vanderbilt.

Today, Ukoli thinks that the question of “Where are you from?” is not a useful one, designed to point out that the asker knows that the other person is not an American.

“There are so many people in this world you cannot guess what someone will say or do by where they’re from,” she said.

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