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Arnold School of Public Health


May graduate (Ph.D, EPID) Olubunmi Orekoya committed to career in reducing health disparities in pediatric obesity

July 5, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Olubunmi (Bunmi) Orekoya found her way to public health through a series of personal experiences. Growing up in Nigeria, she observed the many complications of diseases that can be prevented through vaccinations. After experiencing measles herself, Orekoya was particularly motivated to pursue a career in the health field.

Despite limited financial resources, Orekoya, the third of five children, earned a medical degree from the University of Ibadan through the support of her parents—neither of whom had the opportunity to pursue a higher education degree. “From a tender age, I understood the reality of my family stressors and the goal was to excel in school and proceed to college,” she says. “Going to college became one of the best decisions I have ever made and my experiences have taught me that hard work, motivation and knowledge are vital to achieving one’s goal.”

Following medical school, Orekoya worked with HIV/AIDS patients at Harvard PEPFAR in Nigeria. Through this role, she administered antiretroviral therapy and conducted voluntary counseling and testing. She also helped set up satellite antiretroviral clinics in neighboring towns—gaining critical teamwork skills and making an impact on each individual’s health despite limited resources. But something was missing.

I did not simply want to treat patients or manage complications of disease, rather, I wanted to educate people on health behaviors, prevent diseases, conduct research on distribution and determinants of disease, and understand social determinants of health and health behaviors.

-Olubunmi Orekoya, Ph.D in Epidemiology Graduate

Orekoya noticed that a number of new patients arrived at the clinic each day, often already in stage III or IV of the disease. “From the literature and my work experience, I knew that more patients are dying from complications of disease in the developing world due to lack of adequate preventive strategies, and I wanted to find out more about factors influencing health and how to work at this level to prevent disease,” she says. “I did not simply want to treat patients or manage complications of disease, rather, I wanted to educate people on health behaviors, prevent diseases, conduct research on distribution and determinants of disease, and understand social determinants of health and health behaviors.”

In 2009, Orekoya moved to the United States to earn a master of public health degree from Boston University with an emphasis in maternal and child health. She chose the Arnold School for her epidemiology doctoral program after speaking with a then-UofSC student.

“I knew this was the place I wanted to be because of the diversity of the faculty,” the Norman J. Arnold Doctoral Fellow says. “I also thought the city would be a great place to raise my children. I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made!”

Throughout her program, Orekoya has built her expertise in pediatrics obesity. Her specific goal is to identify maternal, individual, environmental, and social factors influencing childhood obesity while developing evidence-based intervention strategies that help reduce health disparities in this population.

Orekoya’s dissertation research, which focused on early life factors and health outcomes in mothers and children, was supported by the 2016 Seung Yeun Kim Dissertation Award from UofSC’s Walker Institute. As a result of her individual and collaborative efforts, she already has nine peer-reviewed publications with another six under review or in progress.  

I knew this was the place I wanted to be because of the diversity of the faculty...I also thought the city would be a great place to raise my children. I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made!

-Olubunmi Orekoya, Ph.D in Epidemiolog Graduate

Though she technically graduated in May, Orekoya took the next step in this journey in February when she began a postdoctoral fellowship contributing to a postpartum study at Virginia Commonwealth University. She already has her next position lined up as well. After her fellowship, Orekoya will begin a three-year pediatrics residency as a physician at Metropolitan Hospital in New York to combine her research skills as an epidemiologist with her clinical skills.

“My goal is to be a well-rounded physician equipped with a superior ability to manage both common and complex pediatric diseases using evidence-based medicine while also designing cutting-edge research that will answer pertinent health questions in diverse populations,” she says. “I am particularly interested in understanding disparities in health due to race, gender, place of residence, and other determinants of health behavior, especially as related to the pediatric population.”

For prospective students interested in a career in epidemiology, Orekoya has some advice. “Epidemiology is the backbone of public health,” she says, though admitting a bit of bias. “Have an open mind when you come to the program, but start thinking about your dissertation topic early and identify committee members to guide you through the process. Challenge yourself and venture into uncharted territories.”

She also recommends finding great mentors: “Listen to your mentors and be willing to take corrections. Remember, they want you to succeed as much as you do!”

For Orekoya, those mentors have included Boston University’s Yvette Cozier and Milton Kotelchuck. “I have had amazing teachers and mentors at USC who believed in me and were my support system throughout my program, including Drs. Jihong Liu, Linda Hazlett, Anwar Merchant and Sarah Rothenberg,” she says of her Arnold School mentors. “Dr. Liu was my academic advisor and dissertation chair—she was amazing and quite understanding of my circumstances of being a mother of two young boys and juggling that with a Ph.D while taking the United State Medical Licensing Exams at the same time. I was able to complete the program without delay because of the professional guidance and mentorship of my professors”

Orekoya also credits her sons with keeping her motivated throughout her doctoral program, which ended on a particularly high note. “When I walked on that graduation stage as the best doctoral student in epidemiology department, I was in awe and all I could say is that dreams do come true!” she says. “You just have to believe!”