For thousands of applicants seeking entry every year into highly competitive M.D./Ph.D. programs, the path can be arduous because acceptance rates are low.
But for identical twins Dolapo and Bukola Odeniyi, who graduate this month from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, their path to becoming medical doctors and researchers was set years ago in their homeland of Nigeria.
The sisters made a joint decision at the age of seven about their careers when Dolapo incurred injuries to her leg in a horrific vehicle accident. Her wounds were treated in a hospital that was so loosely regulated and with such substandard care that she developed a severe infection which nearly resulted in the amputation of her right foot.
The injustice of a system that seemed tilted in favor of the wealthy left an indelible mark on the young girls. “From that moment on, we knew we wanted to help others get access to affordable, quality care by becoming physicians,” said Bukola.
Bukola received further confirmation about their career destiny when she briefly enrolled in a Nigerian public school and met a classmate with a cleft palate, a birth defect that is usually easily treatable.
“Here is this poor girl, with this awful defect, and nothing is being done about it. But her family could not afford the treatment,” she said.
In their quest to become physicians, the twins began doing research immediately before beginning their undergraduate career. The sisters, both double majors in biology and chemistry, became intrigued by the opportunities research could provide. They immediately realized a M.D./Ph.D. program would provide the best training to work with underserved patient populations, from a clinical and research perspective.
Their father dreamed of broadening the opportunities available to his children, so he brought Bukola and Dolapo, their older brother (also a UALR graduate), and their mother to the U.S. through a federal program known as the “Green Card Lottery” in early 2001. The program makes a limited number of visas available for immigrants each year if they meet certain eligibility requirements.
The twins, Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School co-salutatorians, came to college as members of UALR’s Donaghey Scholars, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minorities Participation, and University Science Scholars programs. They have been McNair Scholars since the summer of 2013.
While at UALR, their academic accomplishments have reflected their ambitions to gain acceptance to a quality M.D./Ph.D. program.
For example, Dolapo was listed as a co-author in a 2013 issue in the American Journal of Physiology Renal Physiology for her contributions to research that seek to improve the shelf life of organs available for human transplant. Meanwhile, Bukola earned multiple research grants.
Both delivered numerous presentations at state and national scientific conferences, accumulating top awards for their research along the way.
Last year, the twins targeted and applied to M.D./Ph.D. programs that had built-in service components, particularly for underserved communities, and that also provided close mentoring relationships. And there was one other non-negotiable item they both insisted upon.
“We wanted to be together,” said Bukola. “If they were willing to have one of us, they had to take us both.”
With news of their recent acceptances to several programs, the twins have edged closer to fulfilling their dreams. They have committed to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for their post-baccalaureate training, where they hope to continue work begun as undergraduate researchers with their mentors Alexei Basnakian, M.D., Ph.D. and Elvin Price, Pharm.D., Ph.D.
The twins will fill two of only four slots available this academic year for the program at UAMS, which waives tuition for accepted applicants and provides an additional stipend during the Ph.D. portion of their academic studies. Their acceptance to the rigorous program is not surprising, given their impressive list of achievements since coming to the U.S. as young girls.
“Of course, we understand that we could not have achieved all of these things alone,” said Bukola. “We would like to thank everyone who has helped us reach our dreams.”
“I believe it was the hand of God at work,” said Dolapo. “From the moment of my accident in Nigeria, until now, it has all been a miracle.