Pitt Student Mingles With Nobel Laureates at Exclusive Annual Meeting

Olonisakin in a gray and black shirt, smiling, next to Peter Agre, a man with a gray beard, glasses, and wearing a bluish purple collar shirtSome celebrate birthdays at dinner with friends or a fun outing. But University of Pittsburgh medical student Tolani Olonisakin rang in her 26th birthday en route to joining hundreds of the world’s brightest minds.

Olonisakin was invited to the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, which was held June 24-29. Every year, about 600 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows — out of the 207 million-plus worldwide — from 84 countries are invited to listen and talk to Nobel Prize winners in Lindau, Germany. There, Olonisakin spoke with some of the world’s leading researchers about her work on bacteria that cause potentially fatal infections in patients with weak immune systems.

Olonisakin has been in Pitt’s School of Medicine since 2013, initially in the Physician Scientist Training Program, wherein medical students spend an extra year conducting research. In 2017, she entered the intensive Medical Scientist Training Program, which generally takes seven or eight years to complete both an MD and a PhD. She is the 18th Pitt student to have attended the meeting since 2004 when meeting organizers started tracking representation.

“This is such a unique opportunity to have most of the top scientists in the world in one room,” said Olonisakin, who is originally from Lagos, Nigeria.

While taking in the sights of the surrounding Lake Constance and historic Bavarian architecture, she got to meet Nobel laureates, including physician Peter Agre — who discovered water channels in cell membranes — and geneticist Bruce Beutler — who studies molecular and genetic aspects of inflammation and innate immunity.

“The open exchange allowed you to foster communication with not only fellow Nobel laureates, but your peers as well,” she said. “I got a lot of contact information from researchers from lots of countries like Turkey, South Africa and Spain. These people are also peers in my research.”

Fighting superbugs

Olonisakin’s research focuses on deadly cases of bacterial infections that have increased in recent years due to multiple-antibiotic resistant strains. Bacteria such as Klebsiella pneumoniae received the dubious distinction of being No. 1 on the World Health Organization global priority pathogen list for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 2017.

“Let’s say you come into a critical care unit after having a stroke, but then you die of pneumonia,” said Olonisakin. “People usually die of pneumonia due to this bacterium being resistant to antibiotics. These are like the superbugs you hear on the news all the time. We need new ways to fight these bugs.”

At 15 years old, Olonisakin enrolled at the University of Lagos in Nigeria to pursue medicine. At 16, she received a full merit-based scholarship to attend Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. There, she became the Erastus Milo Cravath Presidential Scholar in 2008 and completed her Bachelor of Arts in biology in 2012, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and the salutatorian of her class.

In 2013, Olonisakin was accepted into the Pitt School of Medicine’s Physician Scientist Training Program, a structured five-year program designed to position graduates for careers in academic medicine that guarantees one year of laboratory research training.

“She’s a terrific, enthusiastic person and a very pleasant team worker,” said Janet Lee, professor of medicine at Pitt’s School of Medicine and Olonisakin’s academic adviser and research mentor. “She has the great opportunity to meet and learn from some of the greatest minds today who have done work on immunology and microbiology.”

While studying infections and immunity, Olonisakin is trying to forge her own career path as a physician scientist, although her exact focus is yet to be determined. However, moving forward, she has the words of Agre to guide her through her career.

“He said to ask important questions that are beneficial to mankind,” Olonisakin said. “As I go further along my career, that will always be in the back of my head, not to go where the money is, but to ask the important questions that will benefit mankind. Students should take these incredible opportunities.”