Franklin Okpala came to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria, for his sophomore year in high school, recruited as a star athlete to play basketball at Frankford High School. Unfortunately, two days after arriving in Philadelphia he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and his aspirations for a basketball career quickly came to an end.
"As a kid, all I thought about was basketball," said Okpala. "I worried about my grades, but basketball was my priority. I was upset when I found out I couldn't play, but after a couple epiphanies I started thinking about ways to make something else of myself."
It wasn't until Okpala talked to his Advanced Placement biology teacher John Gibney about gene sequencing that he realized he had a true interest, and additional talent, in the sciences.
"Gene sequencing is fascinating to me, so I took an online course and taught myself as much as possible," said Okpala. "I had software to run sequences and compare genes, and access to databases providing sequences and genes so I didn't need an actual lab. I learned enough to enter my first science fair and placed first at the George Washington Carver Science Fair, advancing to the Delaware Valley Science Fair."
Later, Gibney told Okpala about The Wistar Institute's High School Summer Fellowship in Biomedical Research and Okpala jumped at the idea of working in a laboratory setting. Upon acceptance into the Program, he was placed in the lab of David Weiner, Ph.D., under postdoctoral researcher Emma Reuschel, Ph.D., and once again absorbed as much as he could on how the lab developed synthetic DNA vaccines for infectious diseases and cancers. Okpala's experience of suffering from malaria made his time in the Weiner lab even more significant.
"I had malaria as a child, so when I had the chance to learn more about the process to create a potential vaccine for the disease, I was personally as well as scientifically invested," he said.
Malaria is a serious disease spread through a mosquito bite that is widespread amongst many who live in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Acute malaria can be lethal. When Okpala contracted malaria at the age of six it was regarded the same way people in the U.S. concern themselves with catching the flu. Though Okpala's circumstance was serious, it was not deadly.
"I worked in the Weiner Lab through the summer and when the internship ended I continued to volunteer at the lab because I wanted to learn more about the process to develop a potential vaccine for malaria. Dr. Weiner is one of the most inspirational people I've met in my life – he's taught me not just about life in the lab, but about true life lessons as well."
Okpala is now a freshman at the University of the Sciences majoring in Pharmaceutical and Health Care Business/Policy. He also finds time to play Division II basketball as a point guard on the University of the Sciences Devils, but his heart is still in the lab.
"I never imagined I would learn so much from an internship," said Okpala. "Wistar is more than the sum total of its labs, Wistar is a home where people who aspire to research and discover find community with each other. They share and advance science and improve health for all. They may do high level biomedical research, but the students and young scientists are always welcomed and integrated into study groups, scientific presentations, chances to meet visiting researchers and many other opportunities for learning. That experience will stay with me through my life."