Adebola Defies the Odds to Complete PhD

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On a steamy Atlanta summer day in June, Olufunke "Funke" Adebola felt so strange, she had to lie down across the seats of the MARTA train, taking her to her summer job as a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech. Adebola and her husband were far away from their families in Nigeria, and the summer job was extra support while she continued work on a doctoral degree in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. She commuted 50 miles to campus for her studies and the summer job. Fall would mark her two final years of studies, completing her fifth degree.

Then came that awful day on the subway. It turned out that Adebola had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. Her medical team said it was amazing that she even survived. Yet, she went on, albeit on a slower schedule than she had planned, to complete her research and dissertation. Adebola had many reasons to give up, but she was determined not to let her circumstances define her. 

“I wanted to defy every stereotype of what people would have expected to happen,” Adebola said.

On February 26, 2020, Adebola successfully defended her dissertation, "Market-Based Approaches for Postharvest Loss Reduction." Despite the life-threatening aneurysm, surgery, and recovery, she was able to complete her doctorate in five years. She is the first African woman to obtain a Ph.D. from the Nunn School.

Adebola was introduced to the Nunn School by Ray Williamson, a professor at George Washington University, whom she met at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress in Prague. She was working on a master's in space and telecommunications law at the Université Paris XI and expressed interest in learning how technology plays a role in policy. Adebola also holds an undergraduate degree from Obafemi Awolowo University and Barrister of Law from Nigerian Law School.

Then, coincidentally she and her husband, Simon Adebola, moved to Atlanta in 2011 for a job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An alumnus of Georgia Tech's analytics program, he was familiar with the Institute.

In 2013, she was accepted to the master's program in international affairs at the Nunn School. Adebola Later, she decided to pursue her doctorate because of the broad range of projects that are worked on by Nunn School faculty and students - from global development and international security to international affairs, science, and technology. 

“The faculty gave me many opportunities that I probably would never have had if I had not come to the Nunn School,” she said.

During her time as a student, Adebola worked on projects for the US Department of Transportation with her mentor, Thomas "Danny" Boston, now a professor emeritus of the Nunn School, and on elections and banking research with Professor Michael Best. She served as a member of the Library Graduate Student Advisory Board and a reviewer for the President's Undergraduate Research Awards.

As Adebola worked toward her doctoral degree, they welcomed a second child - another daughter. Just seven months after delivery, Adebola took her comprehensive exams. 

“It was intentional that I didn't take time off, I wasn't allowing any of my experiences to tie me down,” Adebola said. 

In the summer of 2017, Adebola was one of 50 doctoral students from 12 universities around the world who were selected to participate in the Imperial-TUM Global Fellows Program. Just days before she was to fly out, she was incapacitated by the ruptured aneurysm making it impossible to attend. 

Following surgery, Adebola needed support to stand up and move due to restrictions from a transcranial catheter draining from her brain, and a separate central venous line linked to her heart, both of which limited her movements. It was lying in an ICU bed, that Adebola remembered the many lessons taught by Michael Salomone, a professor in the Nunn School. 

“He always spoke about wanting students to take charge and do stuff for themselves,” she said. 

Adebola recalled Salomone's advice and said to herself, “I am a Georgia Tech student, I'll get up from this bed and take a walk every day.”

In most cases, patients who suffer a brain aneurysm require occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Yet, Adebola defied the odds and returned to work as a writer for the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts Communications Office, a week-and-a-half after surgery. 

“I went back to work not so much because it was required, but to show myself I was fine,” she said. 

Adebola wasn't able to work every day, but amazingly put in enough hours to make significant progress on a research project for the office. She was nervous about the Fall semester because she was still recovering. She looked different with her hair shaved off, and she was also worried about being pitied. 

To her surprise, after emailing her fellow doctoral students about her situation, they threw her a party and supported her with no questions asked. 

She also saw a different side of the faculty. Personal stories shared with her by Katja Weber and Brian Woodall, both professors in the Nunn School, helped her understand the importance of slowing down and valuing relationships.

“I learned that the faculty are just not there to teach and pester, but they also care about you,” Adebola said. She also credits her recovery to the support she received from the staff of the Ivan Allen College including Rebecca Keane and Vince Pedicino.

That fall, she worked as a research assistant, teaching assistant, took two classes, and presented her scientific paper.

“I wanted to prove that just because this happened didn't mean my brain stopped working; it just motivated me to work harder,” she said.

Further, as a minority at Georgia Tech, Adebola wanted to change the story. “I wanted people to see that all of this is possible even with a growing family, and living far away from campus and my extended family back in Nigeria.” 

She presented her thesis proposal the following year and moved on to conduct her research in Ghana, West Africa, where she worked directly with farmers in the Northern and North West regions. Her research studied the development and policy implications of contract farming as a market-based intervention for reducing postharvest loss and food waste, to prevent food insecurity. 

“I always want to do work that counts in people's lives. Poverty is an ongoing problem, but breaking the cycle of multigenerational poverty can be innovatively addressed,” Adebola said. “I have seen at Tech that there are multiple paths to innovation – the only rule is that we must never stop innovating, and that requires a willingness to continue learning and breaking barriers.”

Adebola's studies are officially complete. She was to graduate this spring, but her hooding was postponed due to the pandemic-related closures.

Although a lifelong learner, Adebola does not plan to get a sixth degree. A lawyer by training, she is currently looking for opportunities at organizations that help alleviate poverty, so people have a better life. It is the reason she completed her dissertation on postharvest loss in Ghana. 

“I don't hesitate to tell people that God saved my life,” she said. “I am glad to be alive today, and I have a responsibility to give back.”

She is looking forward to the rescheduling of Commencement so she can invite the doctors who saved her life as well as being hooded by her advisor, Danny Boston.


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