Chidi Akusobi, MD-PhD ’22, wants to understand the biology of infectious diseases, and help build the science pipeline for students of color
May 27, 2020—Like everybody else these days, Chidi Akusobi, MD-PhD ’22, is thinking a lot about COVID-19. But for Akusobi—who defends his doctoral thesis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in June before finishing his degree at Harvard Medical School—the virus is both a potential spark for future research and a deeply personal concern.
Akusobi grew up in the Bronx, the heart of New York City’s COVID-19 outbreak, where his parents and sister work as nurses. During the initial weeks of the pandemic, they lacked adequate personal protective equipment even as they cared for sick and dying patients. It was a stressful time for Akusobi’s close-knit family, including his two brothers and extended relations in Nigeria, but by early May, his parents and sister reported they were feeling adequately protected and seeing fewer severe cases of COVID-19.
From his parents, Akusobi said, he’s learned the value of education and hard work, and what it takes to truly care for patients. They emigrated with him to the U.S. when he was a toddler and sacrificed to put themselves and their children through school. His decision to become a physician-scientist, he said, speaks to both their influence and his lifelong curiosity about the natural world.
As a kid, Akusobi improvised experiments at home because science education at his school was under resourced. But everything changed when he caught the eye of New York City’s Prep for Prep program for gifted students of color. Through the program, he was admitted in seventh grade to the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, where science class was a regular part of the curriculum. “For the first time, my passion was matched with resources,” said Akusobi.
From there, he went on to a post-high school research internship through the National Institutes of Health; Yale, where he studied evolutionary biology; and the University of Cambridge in the UK, where he earned a master of philosophy research degree with a Gates Scholarship. He then matriculated at Harvard Medical School for his MD-PhD degree, and received a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship and NIH F31 Fellowship for his graduate school work.
Working in the lab of Eric Rubin, Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard Chan School, Akusobi researches Mycobacterium abcessus, which is related to the bacterium that cause tuberculosis. He used a method called transposon sequencing (Tn-seq) on clinical isolates of M. abcessus to identify essential genes—those that enable M. abcessus to survive.
M. abcessus is a naturally occurring bacterium found in the outdoor environment as well as in indoor water sources such as showers and drinking fountains. It can infect the lungs and other parts of the body and cause illness in those with lung disease and compromised immune systems. And like TB, it’s resistant to many antibiotics. In his research, Akusobi discovered a gene that is uniquely essential in M. abcessus—for an enzyme that builds the cell wall—and thus represents a potential important new target for treatment.
He had hoped to complete a few more experiments, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought his work to a premature end. Fortunately he had enough data to complete his dissertation, he said. From his apartment in Boston, Akusobi is writing up his findings for eventual publication. He’s also making use of the time to learn a few new skills like coding, and read science fiction novels.
The pandemic has sparked some new ideas for research questions he’d like to explore in the future. “When there’s an emerging infectious disease like COVID-19, there’s so much that we don’t know about the pathogen,” he said. “I would like to work on understanding the basic biology of infectious diseases. I think of biology as the armor of the organism. When you understand the armor, you can find the chinks—and exploit them for therapeutics.”
Mentoring students of color in science
In gratitude for the life-changing support he has received, Akusobi has made it a priority to give back. Throughout his academic career, he has mentored and taught science to young students and, through leadership roles with the WhiteCoat4BlackLives movement and the Student National Medical Association, helped to build the pipeline of underrepresented minority students in science and medicine.
It’s a key part of what he sees as a successful career. “I want to be an excellent, caring physician, and I hope that any research I conduct will have an impact on how medicine is practiced and how diseases are treated,” he said. “But I won’t truly feel successful if I look around the room decades from now and I’m the only one there who looks like me.”
Photo: Kent Dayton