Karyn Onyeneho Is a Maverick for Change in the Field of Human Genetics

When Karyn Onyeneho was 31 years old, her grandmother Caroline passed away. Her death was premature, and the doctors said it was from type 2 diabetes complications. A naturally inquisitive and compassionate person, Onyeneho researched the disease to learn more about it. She questioned the loss and wanted to find out how she could prevent the rest of her family from falling victim to the same disease.

Starting even before her grandmother’s passing, Onyeneho has spent two decades in a persistent search for advancements in the field of human genetics and experimental nutrition. She got her BS in health sciences and management from Howard University, her MS in health informatics from George Mason University, and recently received her PhD in nutritional sciences from Howard. She is the first in her family to become a doctor.

As an African woman, what was it like attending Howard, a majority Black American space?

I felt a sense of belonging. You have students and faculty in different departments who come from the same communities as me. One of my co-advisors, Dr. Priscilla Okunji, was really instrumental in my growth. She’s Nigerian and works in Howard University’s hospital as a nurse, but she’s also a faculty member. She took me in like I was her child. I felt that she was a second mom, but she was also a professor. I didn’t feel indifferent. I knew I belonged.

Talk to me about your website, Color of Genes.

I was working full-time for the National Institutes of Health while pursuing my PhD full-time. I got so impatient and a little bit annoyed that there were no resources available to help the public simply understand: What is human genetics? What is human genetics research? What is genetic testing? What is genetic counseling? How do we get rid of this jargon and talk in simple terms to the public to explain how these services can actually benefit your life and the lives of your family members optimally?

You don’t have to dig through this pile of jargon. We can connect you, not just to resources, but to genetic professionals that look like you. That’s another issue in health care or human genetics, where a lot of times—and this is not just my opinion; this is scientifically based—you trust sharing your health information or receiving health information from a health care professional that looks like you. They can understand your needs, whether it’s culturally, racially, or ancestrally.

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled to?

It has to be Gaborone, Botswana. I was there in 2018, and I was blown away. I was there for research in my second year at Howard University as a doctoral student. I was conducting research about malnutrition, and I wanted to understand the different incident rates of malnutrition in Botswana compared with the United States. While there, I got a chance to tour the country.

They welcomed us with dances. I mean, they were—I can’t even put it into words. We were welcomed by these beautiful people who will tell you they have nothing, yet they want to give you everything that they have. The journalist who was there—we’re still friends to this day. She literally welcomed me to her home and gave me her clothes to take back just because she wanted to pay respect that I visited their country. The food was incredible, but it was really the culture. Yet it’s sad because that was back in 2018, when the malnutrition rate was incredibly high, especially for children. And worldwide, 50% of children are still suffering from hunger. Unfortunately, they don’t have the technology we do here in the US.

You have three degrees in this field of nutrition and public health. What about this topic has kept you passionate and dedicated?

It started when I was at Howard as an undergrad when I learned about food deserts—that, wait a minute, based on someone’s zip code, you mean that they don’t have access to healthy food? Why is there a Whole Foods almost every five miles in this neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland? But when I go to this part of Prince George’s County, Maryland, I see McDonald’s. I see liquor stores. And to me that’s devastating.

Then inequities and inequalities are not just based on your zip code. Do you mean to tell me that people are treated differently in health care based on how they look, based on their skin color? My mom and dad were mocked because of their deep accent.

I realized what my passion and purpose were in life. To help people that can’t be helped or don’t have a voice or are afraid because they don’t have citizenship.

How do you unwind? Any TV shows you recently loved?

Squid Game on Netflix. The first time I watched it, I was like, “Wow, this is creative.” It tells a story about poverty, underrepresentation, struggle, marginalization—which are all things that I’m very passionate about in my fight for health equality or equity.

It told the story of people who are considered less than others and how they would do anything in order to get out of their debt. It reminded me of my entire academic and career path, and how I’ve always sought to help others. I’m literally a diversity, equity, and inclusion junkie. And so when I learned the background, I literally watched it again.

What’s next for you?

I hope to be the change that I want to see. I really just want to be a leader and a maverick for change. Whether it be in my current profession at the National Institute of Health or scaling my website, Color of Genes. I truly want to be a change agent in my space—on a macro level is STEM, but at the micro level is human genetics research.

Monique Wilson is Glamour’s editorial assistant and a recent graduate of Georgetown University. Follow her at @moneeeeekk


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