Meet Dr. Folamei Ideraabdullah

Written by Karen Schindler as part of the Women's History Month Highlights,
Interview by Laura Schulz as part of the #blackinrepro discussion

Dr. Ideraabdullah is an African American female geneticist whose family is originally from Brooklyn, NY, but she spent her childhood in Liberia, West Africa. She earned her Ph.D. in mouse genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and her postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania studying genomic imprinting.

She is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at UNC with a joint appointment in the Genetics and Nutrition Departments. She serves as Co-Director of the Developmental Disease group within the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility (CEHS), as a Council member for the US Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Society (US DOHaD), and as a Board of Directors member for the Genetics Society of America (GSA).

Her research uses environmental mouse models and human biospecimens to study Developmental Origins of Health and Disease across the lifespan. Her work has been instrumental in defining the role of genotype in driving susceptibility to DOHaD effects.

Check out our recent interview with her:

What is your background/current position and what does it entail?

My training is in mouse genetics & epigenetics and I am currently an Assistant Professor of Genetics & Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

My family is from Brooklyn, New York and although I have spent a lot of time there, I actually spent my childhood in Liberia, West Africa until the age of 15. I was first attracted to science in 7th grade biology class but did not learn about genetics and fall in love with it until 12th grade. I got my current position by working very hard, following my heart, and taking the advice of many mentors. I got into my first research experience with a well-known malaria researcher after my mother met her by chance at a fundraiser in NY when I was a college freshman. She was the first scientist I (or my mother) had ever met. Once I realized how much I loved genetics research, I went directly from a BS in Biology at Penn State University into a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology at UNC Chapel Hill into a postdoctoral position at University of Pennsylvania and finally was recruited back to UNC into my current faculty position.

What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and position?

The hardest part has been the breakdown in every form of community over time and the move of every formal & informal/impromptu interaction to an email or scheduled zoom. Everyone is zoomed out. At first, it was easier to maintain things when activities were temporarily slowed and schools were closed. However, once the University opened up again, and all activities returned to normal it has been very mentally taxing and overwhelming to try to keep up. I’ve found the research moving slower and have had to cut down on my own activities to focus on just the priorities.

What strategies have you adopted in order to create a new “normal” for your daily activities and position?

My lab uses Microsoft Teams a lot to maintain some normalcy of frequent social interactions and exchange of information. I’ve moved to going into the lab/office only 2X / week. Since we are not allowed to socially interact in the building I spend most of the time isolated in my office with the door closed.

Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?

I learned I was overcommitted and working too hard at things that were not super important and streamlined my activities so I could make more time for self-care. I also learned a lot more about how awesome the members of my lab are, as we tried to support each other through these difficult times. I appreciate them even more now than before.  

What expectations have you had to let go or remove from your daily activities and position?

The expectation that I should work until I’m completely spent.

How have you stayed connected with friends and family during this time?

Lots of group texts and zoom happy hours!

What are you most excited to do once the pandemic has cleared?

Oh man, I can’t even begin to dream about that! I’m most excited about traveling to see my family and vice versa.

What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?

Lead with vulnerability and integrity and don’t let your insecurities dictate what you do, how you do it, and who you do it with. Listen more than you talk.

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