Babayemi Olakunde, MBChB, MPH, PhD is a Chief Programme Officer at the National Agency for the Control of AIDS in Nigeria and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Translation and Implementation research (CTAIR), at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Dr. Olakunde is also one of the 2020 cohort of the NIH-supported Central and West Africa Implementation Science Alliance (CAWISA) scholars. He has an interest in health services research, with a specific focus on maternal and child health and HIV.
Q&A with Dr. Olakunde:
“Focus on what you are passionate about”
My name is Babayemi Olakunde. I am from Nigeria. I have my first degree in Medicine and Surgery from Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, Nigeria. I also have Master’s in Public Health from the University of Sheffield in the UK and a PhD in Public Health from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the US. I am married, with a three-year old son. I am a big fan of football – I don’t play, but I enjoy watching and critiquing.
I am from a nuclear family of six. I have three younger siblings. I have quite a few memorable experiences from my childhood, but the ones that easily come to mind are from our family reunions, which usually take place at the end of the year. We kids played a lot of interesting games and had dancing and singing competitions. I remember one year actively learning this particular dance move. I really wanted to put in an impressive performance. And it was going on well until my pants ripped after doing a split. Although that was very embarrassing, at the end of the day I won the competition.
Professionally, I work with the government agency that coordinates the overall HIV response in Nigeria. I am the focal person for the HIV testing services and prevention of mother-to-child transmission thematic areas of the national response. I am also a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Translation and Implementation Research (CTAIR), at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. So I am in public health practice as well as research.
I became interested in public health in my final year in medical school. Learning about different public health issues and how they can often be addressed by simple interventions – such as vaccination, access to clean water, sanitation, or timely access to care –really caught my attention. This interest later expanded to research. I believe research is critical to improving health and well-being. It is important for knowing what the real issues are and how to effectively tackle them. It also helps in identifying the interventions that work and under what conditions. Even for an intervention that is currently working, with research one can still find a better or a more cost-effective way to deliver it.
My research has largely revolved around HIV, maternal and child health, and health policy planning and financing. What excites me about my work is the opportunity I get daily to contribute to improving health and well-being through policy making, programming, and research. And I find it very rewarding to advance knowledge in my areas of research interest.
Getting funding to do a PhD was a big challenge. My plan was to do my PhD immediately after I finished my Master’s. I really wanted to sharpen my skills and strengthen my capacity to solve public health problems with applied research. I wanted to be able to conduct high-quality, impactful research. You don’t necessarily need to have a PhD to be able to do that, but with my limited capacity at the time, I needed that advanced research training. It didn’t happen as planned, though. I had to wait for about seven years. During that long wait I got some offers, but I couldn’t accept them because they were not fully funded.
Currently, managing my time effectively is one of the main problems I face. Working in the public health sector and combining it with research can be time consuming. You need to be able to balance your time to meet other obligations.
On the PhD, I will say optimism and resilience. I was able to overcome it by not giving up. I was resolute. I kept applying; year in and year out. Of course, there were periods when I got frustrated, but the public health issues around me and my future goals would just inspire me again.
The biggest lesson is to focus on what you are passionate about, and at the same time be a bit flexible. To achieve my goal, I had to adjust my initial plan. Reaching out to people who have been successful at doing what you are trying to do and learning from them, will always go a long way. Friends provided me with very useful tips and guidance.
What are some key strategies you have used to help you succeed in your studies or career?
For me, it is putting the goal or the task first. I am always willing to sacrifice, I put ego aside, I do what I have to do to get the job done – without compromising integrity or professional standards or ethics, of course. This is a lesson I learned from one of my mentors. If I have an idea that can be better advanced or realized by another person, I’m not fixated on being the lead. I can work behind the scenes, as long as the goal is realized.
In research, collaboration is key. I strongly believe that one person can’t do, know, or have it all. I look for people who have skills that I don’t have – people who can complement my skills – and I collaborate with them. When I need help, I ask for it. I am never ashamed of doing that.
I am a product of mentoring. I can trace most of the things I have achieved to mentoring either by peers or by more senior colleagues. I learned grantsmanship through mentoring. When I enrolled in my PhD program, I didn’t know much about research grants, but I was lucky to have an advisor who was very good at grant writing. I wanted to learn, and he was willing and available to mentor me. He exposed me to the process of writing and applying for grants. I learned the different types of NIH grants, how to search for grants, how to constitute your research team, etc. And a few months after completing my PhD program, I was able to write and submit my first R01 grant.
Yes. While I was in graduate school, I actually took a program on mentorship. I realized that to a be good mentor I needed to learn how to properly handle a mentor–mentee relationship. So I mentor some junior colleagues at work who are interested in research. I also mentor some other people on personal issues.
In the future, I would love to go into academia to teach and share my real-life experience working in the public health sector. I think I will need to start with some part-time teaching.
What else would you like to share with us that you think might be helpful for others interested in your field of work, research, or study? (Recent funding, publications, or any other stories to captivate the young mind.)
I have a new publication on the use of female permanent contraception in sub-Saharan Africa and a few papers under review. I am currently working on a systematic review and meta-analysis. And I am also learning about some recent advances in computational epidemiology.
"I think there is a lot out there to been done. As our world keeps changing, we are being presented with opportunities to be creative, break new ground, inspire the younger generation, and make and leave the world a better place."
Dr. Babayemi Olakunde