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Renaissance man

A Q&A with Tribute Award recipient Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi

Campus and Community

By Michael Pickard

For the 2019 recipient of the Horizon Award, the idea of becoming a doctor lived in his heart since his youth.

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi, Dip. in Clinical Epidemiology’09, MD ’13, overloaded on math and science in high school, but recognized his own path to medicine would be a crossover of science and art – studying both medical science and sociology. And you can see it in the way he approaches his profession.

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi
Photo: Submitted

At only 33 years of age, Dr. Ogunyemi’s list of accomplishments is vast. And it’s not just the volume of credentials that is impressive, but the variety too.

He served as president of the Medical Student Society. He is a clinical assistant professor at Memorial. He has written for dozens of publications for both the scientific community and mainstream audiences including the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the Globe and Mail. He was recently named a TEDx St. John’s speaker. He travels to Labrador City regularly to attend to the region’s dermatologic care. And the list seems to go on indefinitely.

MP: Tell me a bit about yourself. What kind of visions and dreams did you have as a kid?

BO: I came to Newfoundland when I was three years old, so it’s the only home I know. I felt like I was just like any other kid – I tried to do well in school and had an active social life. Once I hit high school, though, I became more future-oriented, and I knew I wanted to be a doctor.

“I knew the great strengths of Memorial including rural medicine exposure, hands-on experience and more intimate class size.”

My parents instilled in me the importance that my university career depended on my grades in high school, so I enrolled in every science and math course I could. If a course wasn’t offered at my school, I would do it in the neighbouring school.

MP: How did you become a medical student at Memorial? What tipped the scales, when you may have had options elsewhere?

BO: The goal was always to go to medical school, but I wanted to go away for my undergraduate program, to get a different experience and flavour. Western is a great university and my father went there for his training. But I sure missed home, and when I was at Western, I would come home as much as possible.

For medical school, I knew the great strengths of Memorial including rural medicine exposure, hands-on experience and more intimate class size, so it was the obvious choice.

MP: Tell me about a day in the life of a dermatologist. For someone like me who doesn’t know better, it might seem to be biopsies and ointments all day. What’s it really like?

Dermatology as a medical discipline is an excellent example of the conflux of art and science. The art of medicine is about connecting. The science is diagnosis and treatment.

For me, it is so important to actually connect with vulnerable patients. I have attended to neonates, and I have a few patients over 100 years old. I treat men and women; well and unwell. I diagnose and treat cancer every day, and I also help shape the way a person is looked at in the world.

“Everyone you meet knows something you don’t know. Everyone you meet can lead to your growth in some way.”

There are thousands of conditions to diagnose within dermatology; from skin cancer to drug rashes to signs of disorders going on inside the body. Dermatology is about research, teaching trainees and writing. It’s about remote clinics and getting patients back to work after managing occupation-related skin conditions. We rarely need bloodwork or imaging – we use our hands, our eyes, our brains and our heart. I love it.

MP: The knapsack full of distinctions, awards and achievements is getting a little bit overstuffed. How have so many great things come to pass in your life?

BO: Well, that’s nice of you to say – but really, it’s about luck and opportunity. Some of my success has come from a match of my skills and abilities with opportunity. I am so fortunate my parents moved to this great province. I had no say in the matter: I was three. The two most important factors were out of my control: Canada and my parents.

I think I have a lot in common with most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians: I believe in hard work, dedication, grit and persistence. I live by this quote: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t know. Everyone you meet can lead to your growth in some way.” And, of course, support from my wife and my parents has been invaluable.

MP: You gave a TEDx Talk called The Edge Effect. Tell me more about this experience and your topic.

BO: I went to see a TED Talk a few years ago, and I have since watched maybe a hundred TED videos. There was a call to be a speaker in St. John’s, and my wife encouraged me to apply. I always think people should put their hat in the ring, so I pressed “submit” on the very last day.

I was working when they wanted to interview me, so I had to take the call from a utility room in St. Clare’s. And I was fortunate to be one of the six selected. It was a wonderful experience.

“It’s so important to keep good company.”

The Edge Effect is a phenomenon: the greatest number of unique organisms is found at the intersection of two ecosystems. I see it all the time: in our province, the Labrador Current meets the Gulf Stream, yielding one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.

I believe that the arts plus the analytics of science can be used together to create new works and ideas.

MP: You are in an interesting position. Your life is still revving up, and yet you have a lot of great things to build from. Do you have any advice for current students at Memorial? Maybe someone who wants to find a way to break through?

BO: To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl – just keep moving forward. It’s easier said than done to be motivated for the long-term.

Another great piece of advice is from a quote I heard: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” It’s so important to keep good company: my four best friends from Western and I all became doctors or dentists. We had a common work ethic and set of values.

MP: What has Memorial University meant to you as a student?

BO: I truly enjoyed my time at Memorial. In my experience, the principles of equity, fairness and opportunity are central to how the university operates.

There is so much to get involved with and many opportunities for mentorship from world class leaders – some from right here on the island and others from around the globe.

“There are so many young alumni to choose from.”

I availed of mentors in clinical research, leadership, and history of medicine pursuits. I developed a more textured understanding of the province, spending time in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Grand Falls-Windsor and Corner Brook.

MP: What vision do you have for Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine in the future? What are the keys to continued success?

BO: Memorial is key to this province’s success, and the Faculty of Medicine must stay true to its role to create leaders in medicine that will take care of people here.

Innovation in medicine is important – an increasing blend of digital and virtual modes of health-care delivery and communication can increase efficiency and decreases costs.

For example, if we can harness technology for telemedicine, we can make people and patients safer on the roads and decrease the amount of time they lose from being productive at work. It results in a healthier, better province.

The faculty should continue to attract leaders in research and also supplement this with change-makers in organized medicine, medical education, innovation in medicine and health policy and economics. The faculty should continue efforts to integrate into the community, including the longstanding Monte Carlo gala and the more recent open house.

MP: How did you feel when you found out you were being awarded the Horizon Award for 2019?

BO: I was surprised and I was humbled. There are so many young alumni to choose from, and I am grateful for the honour.

Dr. Ogunyemi will be honoured during the 38th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 24, at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus, St. John’s, N.L. Tickets (individuals and tables) can be purchased online. For additional inquiries, please contact Alumni Engagement, Office of Public Engagement at 709-864-4354, toll free at 1-877-700-4081 or email rsvpalumni@mun.ca.


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