Your teenage years are often called your formative years, and they have experiences that can mold you into the person you become later in life. This was surely the case for NCAS-M faculty member, Dr. Osianachi Ajoku.
Currently an Assistant Professor at Howard University within the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, his road to becoming the researcher, mentor and teacher he is today really started with a lot of lessons he learned during high school. Growing up in South Los Angeles, California his neighborhood and high school, the famous Susan Miller Dorsey High School, mirrored those represented in many famous movies, including Love & Basketball. It was during this time that three critical life experiences helped mold him and set his future path.
At home, his family dynamics shifted, and his mother was suddenly the head of their household. Taking care of a young Dr. Ajoku, along with his two brothers and two sisters, his mother worked hard to afford their two-story house in Los Angeles with a very expensive mortgage by working 16-hour shifts. However, those tough times proved pivotal for him.
“I remember periodically where I would go two to three weeks without seeing her. At first, it made me angry, but the older I got the more it hit a soft spot. The more it created an appreciation. It actually leads to my motivation,” Dr. Ajoku reflected. “Everything that I do, how hard I worked, the nights I stayed up during my Ph.D., the tears I’ve shed, I just thought about my mom, and that got me through. I’m really fortunate that she’s still alive and in my life right now.”
At school, he kept busy. He was exposed to two great internships that would help create memorable experiences, introduce him to his first mentor and teach him valuable lessons he’d use later in his career. First, living in Los Angeles meant he had close access to Hollywood studios. One program affiliated with the Fox Corporation allowed him to intern on the set of The Simpsons. Not only did he get valuable experience learning about the entertainment industry, but he met his mentor, Kevin DeCosta. Calling it a game-changing experience, Dr. Ajoku remembers the important role Mr. DeCosta played in his life. “He was a black man with dreadlocks who was married, and he worked in IT. It was so important to me…. I got to see a black man can be successful, love a woman and care for his people. Up to that point, I was really angry…. It actually opened my eyes and had me thinking I could succeed in life.”
The other school internship that guided his career was the ACE Mentor Program. The acronym stands for architecture, construction and engineering. It was his connection to engineering that first allowed Dr. Ajoku to be exposed to the STEM field. In his senior year, he worked with other students to complete various mapping projects throughout Los Angeles. One memorable one was a project working on the E line connected to the Los Angeles Metro Rail system. During the planning process, he and the other students shared thoughts about how it would be ideal to have a stop at their high school. “They actually stayed true to their word. Literally, the first stop that they created was at our high school,” he said.
His high school experiences created a strong understanding of the importance of being involved, sharing ideas, and how STEM practices can impact the world. It, too, set him up to start his educational journey that would eventually help land a job connected to NCAS-M at the prestigious Howard University. While he started out his undergraduate studies at California State University, Long Beach, it would be an eventual move to California State University, Dominguez Hill studying geology that he’d meet another one of his mentors – Dr. Ashish Sinha. He would play a critical role in guiding the rest of his career, including helping him move forward toward to continue his education, which he eventually did at University of California Riverside (M.S. Geosciences, Atmospheric Chemistry and Climatology in 2014 and University of California, San Diego (Ph.D., Oceanography with a specializtion in Climate Sciences in 2019). In fact, after completing his undergraduate degree in 2011, Dr. Sinha offered Dr. Ajoku his first paid position to study stalagmite samples within caves in India. “Thanks to my undergrad mentor Dr. Sinha, he got me into Paleoclimatology. That’s the link between geology and climate,” he said.
Of course, climate is central to Atmospheric Science, which includes the study of weather analysis and predictability, climate and global change, weather systems, air quality, and other atmospheric processes that impact earth. Dr. Ajoku’s post graduate experience was rich in experiences connected to atmospheric science, including his postdoctoral fellowship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. There he worked within the Atmospheric Chemistry Observations and Modeling (ACOM) division to successfully run a climate model. By utilizing both observations and climate models, his current research focuses on the multiple impacts aerosols have on Earth’s climate. In addition to his research, he is passionate about many things, including gardening, diversity efforts and mentorship, which was central to his career success.
On the NCAS-M grant, he is connected to a Master’s student, Lauryn Smith and he guides her in research related to NOAA’s mission. Currently, their research efforts focus on ozone distribution throughout the central mid-Atlantic. Reflecting on his new role as mentor, Dr. Ajoku said, “When I’m interacting with my students, sometimes I find myself doing some of the same mannerisms as my former mentors. It actually works.”