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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

From Refugee to Bioengineer

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Espoir Kyubwa in his lab at the University of California, San Diego.
Photo credit: AP Photo/HHMI/Denis Poroy

San Diego, CA, July 20, 2011 -- From a refugee camp in Burundi to a neuroscience laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, Espoir Kyubwa, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Jacobs School of Engineering, took a unique path on the road to academic success.

Kyubwa was born in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. At age 9, as the civil war from neighboring Rwanda spilled over into his native country, he fled his village with his mother and his brother and found himself in a refugee camp in Burundi. The family then reunited with Kyubwa’s father, who was an engineering student at California State University, Sacramento, at the time. Kyubwa’s parents enrolled him in kindergarten to help him learn English.

Fast forward 15 years, and Kyubwa is now both a doctoral student at the Jacobs School of Engineering and a medical student at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. He credits his mentor at the Jacobs School, bioengineering professor Dr. Robert Sah, for his decision to apply for the M.D./PhD program.

“I really wanted to find a way to bring science and human health together,” Kyubwa said.

That’s perhaps not surprising, coming from the son of a nurse and an engineer. Kyubwa’s ultimate goal is to run a lab in an academic hospital, while also running a clinic, where he can teach residents and practice medicine. He recently received a Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Studies from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help him pursue these two degrees. Each student selected receives $46,500 a year to support graduate study for up to five years. Fellows are chosen for their passion for research and their own commitment to increasing diversity in the sciences. 

Outreach and undergraduate research

Before enrolling in UC San Diego’s M.D./PhD program, Kyubwa was an undergraduate here on campus and the president of the UCSD chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. During his tenure, he spearheaded the creation of an outreach program for middle and high school students. “I felt that they needed to see someone who looks like them, who’s done it, who’s a scientist and an engineer,” he said.

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Espoir Kyubwa in front of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Retina Center at UC San Diego, where his lab is located.
Photo credit: AP Photo/HHMI/Denis Poroy

Kyubwa also accumulated an impressive amount of undergraduate research experience. During his freshman year, he worked with biochemist Russell Doolittle to study the steps in the formation of fibrin, a protein that helps blood clot. As a sophomore, he joined Sah’s lab through the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. There, Kyubwa undertook a project looking at how cartilage integrates with bone and developed a method to measure the strength of the cartilage-bone interface.

“I knew this is a research institution,” Kyubwa said. “I wanted to get my hands in the lab.”

Sah became his mentor. “Even as a sophomore, Espoir had already demonstrated a sincere interest in research, an exceptional ability to communicate his past experiences, and a passion for making a positive difference in the world we live in,” Sah said.

Unique experiences

It’s probably safe to say that many of Kyubwa’s past experiences are fairly unique. As a child in a refugee camp in Burundi, he watched his mother help women and children scarred by civil war. His mother still works as a certified nurse here in the United States, where she went on to raise six children.

As a 9-year-old in Sacramento, Kyubwa did his best to adapt to life in the United States. It wasn’t always easy. He was the oldest, by far, in the kindergarten class where his parents enrolled him. But that ended up having a positive effect on him, by sheltering him from potential teasing by older classmates. After a few months, he was promoted to first-grade. He skipped second- and third-grade altogether. 

He struggled with English, but was far above fourth-grade level in math. In Congo, teachers heavily stressed that subject, Kyubwa explained. In the United States, he now naturally gravitated toward subjects where he could use his math skills and developed a passion for science.

Finding a mentor

In addition to working in Sah’s bioengineering lab, Kyubwa also attended the professor’s small-group seminars, where Sah taught students how to write and submit grants, how to set up experiments and how to improve their research methodology. The professor also held weekly meetings, where he set aside time to talk about students’ career development. Conversations with Sah steered Kyubwa toward an M.D./PhD.

“There is a great need for physician scientists who can bridge that gap between research and patients,” Sah said, when asked to recall his conversations with Kyubwa.

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Espoir Kyubwa grew up in war-torn Congo before becoming at student at UC San Diego. 
Photo credit: AP Photo/HHMI/Denis Poroy

To apply research findings to a clinical setting, you need an M.D., Sah also told him. But to do rigorous science and engineering research, you need the in-depth knowledge that comes with a formal Ph.D. program, which includes didactic instruction, in the classroom and the lab, and a solid thesis project.

Kyubwa is passionately curious about biomedical questions, understanding the current state of knowledge both in science and engineering, and then seeking to advance the field, Sah said.  He proved himself to be hard-working, well-organized and dynamic.

As a 23-year-old, he went back for the first time to Congo to visit family and get to know the country of his birth. He toured hospitals and talked with local officials about their needs. He served as a translator for foreign doctors caring for victims of a gas truck explosion. He also was robbed at gun point.

“It really helped me understand the reality of living in Congo,” Kyubwa said. “I also learned that the medical and technological needs in Congo are so great that even a small positive difference would make a tremendous impact.”

Through it all, his role model has been his father, who earned an engineering degree from CSU Sacramento and now works for the state government in California’s capital.

“He is my inspiration,” Kyubwa said.  “My thought is that if he could do it, then I can too.”

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