University of South Carolina

Dreaming of pharmacy in Africa

By Hannah Spicher, HSPICHER@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-9086

It all started with an image.

For Serge Afeli, a 6-foot-9-inch former basketball star and current doctoral student in the South Carolina College of Pharmacy, that image was a shiny BMW parked outside the local pharmacy in his hometown of Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Who drove that car, he wondered? And what did they do? A 10-year-old boy at the time, he learned the car belonged to the local pharmacist.  From that point on, Afeli knew he wanted to become a pharmacist.

“I always knew I wanted to help cure people with diseases like my grandmother, who was a traditional therapist, used to do. Coming from a continent where the healthcare system is so poor, I was excited to get involved in the research aspect of healthcare,” Afeli says. “After college, I briefly worked as a pharmacy technician. But I knew then that dispensing medicine wasn’t for me. I wanted to help make it.”

Teased by the “cool” neighborhood kids for being smart, as a child Afeli was reassured by his dad, who told him, “wait 20 years and then we’ll see who’s the coolest.”  For Afeli and his six siblings, this meant their first priority would be schoolwork.  

“My father emphasized education and how important it is to get the best grades you can,” he says. “Growing up, we weren’t allowed to watch television during the school year. But he did let me play basketball as Iong as I had good grades.”

In sixth grade, Afeli chose basketball over soccer after watching the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” and seeing “a guy called Michael Jordan” on television.  Afeli had to work extra hard to stay the course toward pharmacology while playing forward for the Ivory Coast’s national basketball team and Kansas State University. 

“When I first came to Kansas State University, they wanted to put me into a relatively ‘easier’ major because to play ball at such a high level of competition, we had to practice about three hours a day and be on the road a lot,” Afeli says. “But I told them, no — there is no way I’m giving up on my dream of being a researcher in pharmacy one day. So I had them switch my major to physical science and pre-pharmacy with a minor in chemistry, even though I knew I would have to stay an extra year in school after finishing playing ball.”

Now married to a fellow scientist, Hélène Marie-Afeli, and father to son Louis-Guillaume, Afeli is thankful he worked extra hard and seized the opportunities given to him.

“It takes a lot of time to go to graduate school. But in the end it’s worth it,” he says. “You can change lives. It’s there. You just have to go and get it.”  

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Posted: 01/08/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 01/08/13 @ 3:34 PM | Permalink