When Divine Nwafor was 11, he didn’t read “Harry Potter” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” like most kids his age.
No, he was less interested in the spells and wizardry or mythical beats and fantasy. Instead, he used his brain to, well, read books about the brain.
To him, the brain was such a powerful tool. But one filled with mystery. Sure, he knew the heart pumped blood and the lungs brought in oxygen. The brain, however, is interconnected to just about everything a person does. That simple thought mesmerized the youngster.
Nwafor, who was born in Cameroon and lived much of his child and teenage years in Lagos, Nigeria, spent hours reading books from retired neurosurgeon-turned-author Benjamin Carson, the first person to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.
When he wrote of the surgeries he performed, I felt like I was there in person just standing right beside him,” Nwafor said. “To me at that young age, I thought that was really interesting.”
Nwafor will graduate with a degree in biochemistry from West Virginia University and will continue his studies at WVU in medical school this fall. One day, he plans to be a neurosurgeon with a focus on rural medicine.
His journey, born via Carson’s books some 10 years ago, was brought to life at WVU, as he was able to start asking the backlog of questions he built up while going to private school in Nigeria.
“In Nigeria, you just have to memorize the material. You can’t question things,” Nwafor said. “I always wanted to argue and find out the best solution to everything, not just memorize it. That’s something that I really appreciate about WVU.”
Why WVU? Well, he had never visited the campus or knew of the University before applying. But through YouTube videos, Nwafor saw a sense of community in Morgantown not easily visible at other universities.
“I saw that WVU was a school filled with a community of people with a particular spirit that they collectively believed in,” said Nwafor, who was just 17 at the start of his college career at WVU in 2011.
Once in Morgantown, he began to ask those questions he’d accumulated over the years in Africa.
“I just get so excited by the brain,” he said. “The questions I have fascinate me and really draw me to it.”
One in particular seemed to really pique his curiosity. “Why can’t you transplant a brain like you can every other organ?”
To find an answer, he took part in a neurosurgical internship at Red Cross Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa; he was one of just two students around the world to be selected in 2013. On his first day, he was surprised to scrub in for a hydrocephalus surgery, which attempts to remove build-up fluid from within the brain.
“That got me even more excited. I started to ask ‘when is the next surgery?’” Nwafor said.
His newfound surgical experience led to even more queries – not of just the brain itself or the surgical processes but of the research going on behind the scenes.
He stretched beyond the human brain to research the brains of moths and their olfactory processes (smell) and how to improve or negate them. He discovered that moths could be used to help the military sniff out explosives. Further research into olfactory processes, Nwafor said, may also lead to answers to diseases and disorders like Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia.
“I want to get involved in the research, so I can make an impact on patients in the future,” he said. “Research is the bridge between curing your patient – after all, most of the drugs and the outstanding movement in medicine are from the time that people devote to research.”
He shares his knowledge of the brain with students who are curious – just like he was as a child. As a three-year member of the Neuroscience Club, Nwafor and his fellow club members visited various elementary and middle schools and taught these students how the brain works.
“For the state of West Virginia, these kids are the ones that will lead the state in the future,” he said, “so we’re trying to get them educated and excited to push them further.”
Nwafor recognizes some of the students gain a new interest in the brain … maybe even a new passion, just like he did from reading those books when he was 11 years old.
“Looking back to my freshman year, I wouldn’t have seen myself as someone who was making as big of an impact on my community as I am,” he said.
Before starting medical school at WVU, Nwafor will spend the summer in Martinsburg, West Virginia, at a family medicine program to learn more about rural medicine. Living in Cameroon and Nigeria and learning in South Africa and West Virginia has shown Nwafor the difference in medical care between rural and urban areas and the rich and poor – something he’d like to change.
“In Africa, I’ve seen the level of disparity in medicine, and that defeats the whole purpose of it,” Nwafor said. “That drives me to improve rural healthcare … I want to push science a step further in those areas.”
He hopes to create diagnostic centers in rural areas to close the gap in medicine around the world.
Oh yea, he’d also like to be a brain surgeon. People in his field say he’ll change his mind about that and decide on a different discipline, but Nwafor feels pretty confident he’ll stick with neurosurgery.
After all, he’s loved it ever since he was 11.