Sophie Okolo – scientist, writer and longevity advocate

Sophie Okolo, MPH, is the founder and chief editor of Global Health Aging, a web-based publication covering the research and news dedicated to “exploring the implications of longer, healthier lives.” Sophie is a science writer and researcher with a bachelor’s degree in bioinformatics and a master’s degree in public health. She is passionate about creating a better quality of life for older adults through increasing access to preventive care and building public awareness of older adults’ perception and treatment. Her writing has appeared in Forbes, PBS Next Avenue, Massive Science, Philips, IEEE Potentials, and others. An advocate for STEM inclusion, Sophie supports various causes that improve women and minority representation. She is a TEDMED 2020 Research Scholar, and currently serves as an advisor for humanKINDER – a company that shines a light on untold stories, ideas, and solutions for systems change. You can follow Sophie on Twitter or Instagram.

1. How did you first become interested in science? My mother is a pharmacist, and my father is a mechanical engineer, so science was always a topic of conversation. I like to joke that I had no choice, but I was an avid reader and had a budding interest in science. My parents’ love and dedication of all things STEM was my inspiration, especially my mother. Her example and mentorship influenced the formation of my career goals, including my dedication and perseverance in STEM. She encouraged my fascination with science! I have fond memories of her explaining chemical reactions and equations at the dinner table.

My mum was my role model in STEM

2. So how did you convey all the teaching from your family into a career in global health? I am a global citizen! I love learning about different cultures and their approach to scientific knowledge. Even as a child, I was very interested in people and their background, whether on TV or in real life. My parents emphasized the importance of understanding the world around us, that life is not just happening in one place, and people can learn from each other. I applied this philosophy to my studies and research in ageing, bioinformatics, and public health, including my work for Global Health Aging. There is strength in diversity and collaboration because one size doesn’t fit all.

Alongside science, my family also taugh me about integration and diversity!

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3. I am so impressed about all the STEM projects you are involved in. How do you find the time to manage all this? How does your typical day look like? Thank you! I’m honestly not sure, but my driving force is to support innovative solutions that advance diversity and inclusion in STEM. A few examples are The STEM Squad, Her STEM Story, and Unique Scientists. What’s most important is to avoid burnout and not take self-care for granted. There is no ‘typical’ day because each day is different. One day, I would be busy planning tweets, and the other day, I would be analyzing data for research. Maybe the next day, I would be busy writing an article for publication, editing a cookbook of recipes from refugees, or planning strategically toward the next steps for new projects. (stay tuned!)

I like it because every day sets a new challenge.

4. Have you personally experienced discrimination in academia? How did you deal with that? Yes. I usually call my family or close friends because they give the best motivational talks. What I’m also learning is to let go and let live. Success is relative, and everyone is on a journey that is uniquely their own. When we choose to remember harsh criticism and forget our accomplishments, we diminish our joy, and that needs to stop. I’m learning to be kinder and more patient with myself, celebrating my wins, whether few or many and seeing the big picture. Read this powerful op-ed about impostor syndrome by Christine Liu, founder of The STEM Squad and Two Photon Art.

Success is relative, and everyone is on a journey that is uniquely their own.

5. So, what’s your advice to girls or women from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in STEM? A LOT but I’ll summarize it to these four suggestions!

  • Find allies within and outside your field who are cheerleaders in the highs and lows.
  • Believe in yourself even when nobody else believes in you. Work smart as well as hard and embrace your unique gifts.
  • Find a mentor. Mentors can help you develop your career. I’ve had mentors at different times in my profession, and it makes a big difference. A mentor can also encourage you to join professional organizations that are relevant to your field.
  • Volunteer your time, energy, or skills, which can help with building your network and connecting with people who share your passion and purpose. Personal branding (marketing yourself and your career as a brand) is also crucial as you build your STEM career.

6. Anything else you want to add? Yes! International Stuttering Awareness Day is right around the corner on October 22nd. The day is intended to raise public awareness of the millions of people – one per cent of the world’s population – who stutter including me. My goal is to encourage STEM folk who stutter (or anyone for that matter) to pursue their goals, especially if it’s public speaking. Even if it isn’t, you never know when someone may ask you to speak about your research or work experience! Last year, I told myself that 2019 is my year of saying yes to any public speaking opportunity – and even pursuing them, despite my fears. It takes practice, and I’m still practising because we don’t grow when we are comfortable.

Everyone has a voice, and the world deserves to hear YOU.

 

Thanks so much for interviewing me, Teresa! You’re a rockstar, and I can’t wait to see what you do next in STEM.