by Patheresa Wells
Princess Imoukhuede’s (pronounced I-muh-KWU-e-de) love for science is infectious. Her eyes light up each time she speaks about the field which she has pursued her whole life. It’s this passionate pursuit which led, last month, to Imoukhuede being named the new chair of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. The department is part of both the UW College of Engineering and the UW School of Medicine. Effective Jan. 1, 2022, Imoukhuede will hold the Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair and Professorship.
Imoukhuede’s love for science and research dates back to high school. As a sophomore, she left her hometown of Matteson, Illinois, to attend the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a state-funded public residential high school for students gifted in math and science. Being given the opportunity to attend a high school focused on STEM learning “was kind of a turning point for me,” she said, “because you look left, you look right, there’s so many opportunities. And it’s a normalized thing to be interested in this space.” At the Academy, Imoukhuede would take the bus over to Midwestern University College of Pharmacy early in the morning to work on a project researching microencapsulation of beta blockers. This research helped prepare Imoukhuede for her time studying chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
After completing her degree at MIT, she undertook her graduate studies in bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, where she became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in her field. She then went on to study as a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University and currently works as an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Not only are Imoukhuede’s credentials impressive; she is also impressively well-rounded. In college, she participated in track and field, concert choir, and the Black Theatre Guild. She says that juggling her academic workload, research, and extracurricular activities taught her how to effectively manage her time. “There’s something about having something else in your schedule that, at least in my experience, seems to balance you in a way that gives you time away from things that you’re also focused on.” Imoukhuede says these endeavors helped to refresh her and “contributed to who I am today and why I see things the way I see them.” Today, Imoukhuede continues to use the art of balancing her time to enjoy sports like tennis and, more recently, to experience the joys that come with motherhood.
When Imoukhuede first considered applying at the University of Washington in Seattle and leaving her current position, she says she thought a lot about whether it was the right time. But as she contemplated this while speaking to her interviewers at UW, she found herself enticed by “a faculty that has a very grassroots approach … where they want to get involved, they want to move towards change, whether it’s changing research, changing the way they teach and deliver content, [or] changing the type of service that they’re involved in.”
Throughout her career, Imoukhuede has realized that she tends to “thrive in environments where … people feel that level of self-determination and feel like they can move towards change. I feel like I thrive and I do my best work when I’m around people who see no barriers to progress.” And Imoukhuede says she sees an inclusivity at UW and the Pacific Northwest, a desire to dismantle barriers, that is in line with her own commitment to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
One of the ways Imoukhuede has worked to do this with other colleagues in her field is to figure out how to create spaces for Black women within their disciplines. These conversations led her and her colleagues to facilitate the Black Women in Biomedical Engineering: Cultivating a Community for Success and Longevity special session that is now held at the annual meeting for the Biomedical Engineering Society. She is forthright in sharing that she plans to continue this work in her new position at UW.
Imoukhuede is addressing her commitment to social responsibility not just through leadership and diversity initiatives but in her research as well. Currently, she says she is working in partnership with another African American female professor in obstetrics and gynecology to improve the use of the drug oxytocin, “which is used to augment labor and delivery, but [some patients] don’t respond in the way which you expect.” Under most circumstances, oxytocin induces labor, but in some cases, it does not. The research Imoukhuede and her partner are doing, she shares, uses the “same kind of approach that we use to understanding blood vessel formation — a systems biology approach, and we said, ‘Let’s apply this to obstetrics and gynecology, specifically, oxytocin and oxytocin receptor signaling.’” Her hope is that with continued research, they can develop a drug to be more effective for those patients in whom oxytocin does not cause labor to progress.
Imoukhuede’s interest in women’s health research stems from what she says are “so many unmet needs. This is an important area, particularly when we talk about Black women.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Imoukhuede says of Black maternal mortality that “honestly, unless we’re really pushing for this, it’s a Black maternal genocide. And until we are willing to really engage in the many reasons that this is occurring, the genocide is going to continue.”
Come 2022, Imoukhuede plans to work with her new UW team to “develop the kinds of connections that are necessary to make sure that everyone is empowered, particularly … [when] we’re talking about a State school that’s for the people of Washington — everyone deserves that.” Using a framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion, her goals include finding ways to help build pathways “to get students excited and interested in STEM” and for those students who are already enthusiastic “to make sure that we’re not excluding [them].” She says exclusion has played a role in reducing opportunities at UW Bioengineering.
Imoukhuede’s viewpoint on how to create new pathways into STEM, for those who do not traditionally have access, includes creating opportunities early on. She says her own access to opportunities as a young person had a significant impact on her career and all she has been able to accomplish, including being named the new chair. She hopes to foster similar opportunities for youth today in her new position. She says exclusion has played a role in reducing opportunities at UW Bioengineering, and it’s something she hopes to address.
But perhaps one of the most profound ways Imoukhuede is doing this is simply by existing, by being an example to those who might follow in her footsteps. And as she coalesces her journey from being a high schooler with a love for STEM to being named the new chair of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle — she is showing everyone what is possible for women and Women of Color, given the right opportunities.
Patheresa Wells is a poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
📸 Featured Image: Professor Princess Imoukhuede, in her lab at Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: Joe Angeles, courtesy of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington)
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