Cultivating Collaboration: Spotlight on Oladele Ogunseitan

Oct. 24, 2022

Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan
Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan
Source: Oladele Ogunseitan
Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan, a professor of population health and disease prevention at University of California (UC), Irvine and the UC presidential chair, has led an illustrious career spanning decades and scientific disciplines. It was with the support of strong mentors and collaborators over the years that Ogunseitan found his scientific footing. Now, he aims to provide opportunities for budding scientists with diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences to do the same.

Ogunseitan’s microbiology origin story can be loosely traced back to his toothbrush. While growing up in Ilesa, Nigeria, he tended to store the brush in the refrigerator to prevent flies and other “things” (i.e., microbes) from living on it—even if, at the time, he didn’t know what those “things” were. Coupled with his insatiable curiosity, this practice hinted at his intrigue with microbiology long before he declared interest in studying it. This declaration came during his college years at Obafemi Awolowo University. Though he initially majored in physics, he shifted to microbiology after his first year and delved into the field of environmental microbiology. Once he got a taste of outdoor fieldwork, he never looked back.

Ogunseitan went on to complete a master’s degree in microbiology and, upon graduating in 1983, decided to pursue his doctoral degree and goal of becoming a professor. He was keen to expand his geographic horizons and applied to universities in the U.S. and England. It was a phone call with Dr. Gary Sayler, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that set his academic career in motion. Though it took Ogunseitan a full day to get to Lagos, Nigeria to access a phone for the call, it was worth it. That initial journey led to a longer one, this time to Tennessee. Here, as a Ph.D. student in the Sayler lab, he became more entrenched in environmental microbiology and biotechnology.

Ogunseitan’s research was motivated by the growing concern that groundwater and lake sediments, in Tennessee and beyond, were contaminated with pollutants. “We needed to think about biological ways of degrading the chemicals,” he explained. “So, we were looking for naturally occurring genes in bacteria that had degradative potential.” Ogunseitan focused on transduction—the process in which bacteriophages (bacteria-infecting viruses) transfer genetic material between bacteria. His research showed that quantifying the frequency of transduction in natural environments, like lakes, could be useful in several ways. Specifically, it could inform risk assessment practices (e.g., determining if genes are spreading to bacteria that are not “on the radar,” with potentially deleterious consequences), as well as bioremediation efforts (i.e., spreading genes that are desirable).

With a Ph.D. and numerous publications under his belt, Ogunseitan reached his goal of becoming a professor and joined the faculty at UC Irvine in 1992. He highlighted that, for young investigators, it can be difficult to establish a direction in a field. “The challenge [is] to do something that takes you beyond your dissertation work,” he said. “It's important to find your own voice.”

With this in mind, Ogunseitan built on his past work and began “thinking about ways to use genetically engineered organisms to address environmental problems, like mercury [and] lead pollution.” This led to advancements like developing a biosensor for lead pollution using bacteria. While most of his research centered on the environmental impacts of toxic metals pollution, Ogunseitan became intrigued by the health implications as well (an interest that would later prompt him to pursue a master’s degree in public health at UC Berkeley). He started collaborating with engineers and material scientists focused on the health ramifications of e-waste, including the effects of toxic metals leached by electronics into the environment.

Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan standing next to boxes of electronic waste.
Ogunseitan is 1 of the world's leading experts on the environmental and health effects of e-waste.
Source: Oladele Ogunseitan

Fast forward 20 years, and Ogunseitan is among the world’s top researchers on the environmental and health hazards of e-waste. In addition to leading his own research program, Ogunseitan has held various influential positions—he has served as the founding chair of the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention at UC Irvine and is currently on the executive team for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) One Health Workforce-Next Generation project. He has also received countless honors and awards, including being elected into the American Academy of Microbiology.

Needless to say, Ogunseitan found his voice. Yet, his career has been far from a solo affair. Ogunseitan pointed to collaboration and solid mentorship as forming the heart of his scientific journey. “I find myself more productive because I collaborate across disciplines,” he said. He also credited a long list of mentors—some who have remained his friends for over 30 years—with getting him to where he is today. “What I took from them is their commitment to excellence,” Ogunseitan said. He learned by observing their curiosity, honesty and dedication to scientific rigor. Each contributed something special to his growth, and he valued the opportunities his mentors provided him—they never “thought that I could not be excellent,” he shared.

It is with this spirit of opportunity that Ogunseitan has approached his own role as a mentor to up-and-coming scientists. He has mentored scores of graduate students, postdocs and undergraduate students and has diligently worked to foster a scientific community rich in diversity.

“I'm very convinced bringing multiple voices [to the table] is important,” he said. Still, Ogunseitan acknowledged that believing that diversity is valuable is one thing—but taking the steps to cultivate it is another. “I always ask, ‘How do I get more diverse students into my lab? How do I encourage them to apply to the best places they can get in, rather than limit themselves?’” He highlighted the value of a “bottoms-up approach” that involves “going into the community, doing the work and finding people, and then bringing [the opportunity to them].” When doing so, Ogunseitan stated that viewing students holistically by acknowledging their skills and potential is critical.

“When I'm saying, ‘please apply to our program because you're in this group,’ I'm not giving you a freebie. I'm telling you that you're good and you will succeed if you do the work that’s necessary to accomplish this kind of goal. So, I personally balance that outreach with…critical appraisal of where somebody is and giving them frank advice”—something he picked up from his own mentors, who never shied away from honest assessments of his work. Ultimately, being a good mentor means “nurturing something that’s there and helping people really succeed when they’re at the point in which they can do that,” he said. This sets students on a path toward finding their own voice—a task Ogunseitan admits can be challenging, particularly for those from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs).

“I think for people [from HUGs], there's this feeling of being an imposter—[that] you’re not really at the level that is expected, or maybe [that] your accomplishments don't really mean much.” And while he noted that this imposter syndrome is not a unique experience for people from HUGs, it can be more pronounced because of society’s narrative that those from underrepresented backgrounds share the same life experiences and perspectives. Ogunseitan underscored that this narrative is inherently faulty. He encourages young scientists to find power in their unique perspective, to pull up their seat at the table—and stay there.

“Don't leave because you're feeling uncomfortable,” he said. “You [might] raise your hand [and] nobody [will] call on you. You can think whatever the reason is, but don't leave. Because I think, ultimately, you get the respect and the participation that you seek. And importantly, you're a role model for others…Your experience at that time will always count for something when you're telling others [to] come along.”

Author: Madeline Barron, Ph.D.

Madeline Barron, Ph.D.
Madeline Barron, Ph.D. is the Science Communications Specialist at ASM. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.