A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Thomas More College scholarship helped Winter Okoth to make a global difference in health care

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

In Western Kenya, where Winter Okoth grew up, malaria robs all too many children and pregnant women of their lives. Her own life was fraught with hardships.

“I come from a very humbling background, born and raised in Kenya where I experienced a very difficult childhood due to stringent poverty and domestic issues my family faced,” says Okoth.

Raised in a world where too many lives succumbed to disease, Okoth knew she wanted to be part of making a difference.

Winter Okoth began her successful career trajectory at Thomas More College.

“I therefore developed a passion for science, specifically biomedical/clinical research, to better understand the mechanisms underlying these diseases, and help in finding therapeutic measures and cure as well as engaging in science advocacy, enlightenment and policy-making,” says Okoth.

She’s well on her way.

In May, Okoth earned her Master of Science in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she had her first malaria research exposure. Her thesis work assessed the pharmacodynamics of antimalarial drugs.

But before Johns Hopkins, Okoth laid the groundwork for her success at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills where she earned her undergraduate degree.

Okoth, who was on a four-year academic scholarship, majored in biology with a concentration in cellular molecular biology. She also earned an associates degree in chemistry.

“This was a huge gift that has transformed my life and beyond,” says Okoth.

During her time at Thomas More, Okoth embraced the campus community and beyond. She engaged in science fairs in Blessed Sacrament School, volunteered as a science judge for the North Area Counties of Kentucky Exposition of Science (NACKES), and volunteered with Christ Hospital’s ER department. She also participated in US-Mexico border studies, where she traveled to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico for service learning, and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity’s Thomas More College Chapter in Lafayette, Louisiana. She says she not only helped build houses for Hurricane Katrina victims, but had the opportunity to help build hope in communities “through the gift of love and acts of kindness.”

Dr. Jeanne-Marie Tapke met Okoth through a leadership development program offered to selected undergraduates by the Distinguished Alumni group of Thomas More College.

“I believe Winter developed many alumni, faculty, and staff as much or more as we developed her,” says Tapke. “She often speaks of the leadership opportunities she received at TMC and how they have supported her personal growth.”

Okoth with team members giving a workshop on girl-child health and education at a primary school in Kenya

Okoth recently returned to the Thomas More campus to give a presentation to the school’s Senior Biology Seminar class about her career trajectory. She also met with local businesses who are involved in vaccine development.

“Her eventual career goal is to build a medical research center in Africa,” says Tapke. “Given her attitude and all she has accomplished so far, I believe she will do it. In this process she will not only support important research, she will mentor and promote African scientists.”

Okoth says the experiences she had while at Thomas More shaped her into a ‘well-rounded person” and played a key role in the successes she’s had in her life and career.

“During my time at Thomas More College, I was not only engaged in academics but also wholly immersed myself in the community through service, leadership, and volunteerism,” she says.

Okoth’s first exposure to the field of biomedical science came by way of two competitive summer undergraduate research fellowships through the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine’s immunology program that she participated in during her sophomore and junior year at Thomas More.

“I am very passionate about constructive mentorship and more so helping nurture and open doors to more young scientists and the next generation,” says Okoth. “As a young driven scientist and public health professional in training, I eventually look forward to not only serving in the academia but also most importantly running research laboratory and helping build state-of-the-art school of public health and research institute in Kenya through collaborative efforts to help nurture and open doors to more young scientists and public health professionals.”

A mentorship workshop in Kenya.

As if excelling in her studies and engaging in the community weren’t enough on her plate, Okoth also established a 501c3 nonprofit during her senior year — The Pamoja Kenya Mentorship Alliance. PAKEMA is based in Kisumu, Kenya and Kentucky, and serves as the 21st century mentorship alliance of Kenyans and global elites, extending mentorship programs to young school children and youths situated in underprivileged areas of Kenya and beyond. Okoth is the organization’s executive director.

“Our programs focus on the empowerment, entrepreneurial leadership, critical thinking, socio-economical, health education, STEM education, community service, academic growth, and prowess of the youths who are the future leaders of our nations,” says Okoth.

Okoth says public health responds to the health-related needs of communities, populations, and societies from across the world.

“In Africa, there is shortage of scientists and public health professionals due to lack of enough training infrastructures and opportunities.,” says Okoth. “Therefore, my innovative big dream of helping build a state-of-the-art school of public health and research institute will ensure educating and nurturing future public health leaders who will help translate public health research into practice and implementation of policies to help improve the health of the people in these communities.”

She says research and capacity building infrastructures are very limited in Kenya.

“Due to lack of much stronger health systems and infrastructures, there’s lack of high quality training and motivation among science and health-related majors at the colleges. Therefore, there is a serious need to focus on empowering the next generation of young scientists and public health professionals to prevent brain drain in these fields of study,” says Okoth. “As an entrepreneurial leader, I therefore envision taking my knowledge and skills and returning to Kenya Africa to help make a difference in the public health field as a change agent.”

Investing in the education and training of the next generation of young African scientists and public health professionals , she says, will ease and hasten the fight against the infectious diseases such as malaria that are endemic in Africa. Capacity building will ensure development of training curricula for health officials, public health professionals, and young trainees.

“These curricula will better equip our students and trainees with key tools and skills regarding some of the major public health issues by majorly focusing on infectious diseases of huge public health concern in these regions, community wellness and engagement, disease prevention implementation efforts at community, national and global level,” says Okoth. “Therefore, I’m on a huge mission to defeat malaria (and other infectious diseases endemic in Africa), promote science — STEM, women, and youth empowerment, and continue making a difference. All these would not be possible were it not for the gift of liberal arts education that Thomas More College blessed me with, and I’m truly thankful for the love and support.

Tapke says she continues her relationship with Okoth through an invitation the TMC graduate extended to her to join PEKEMA’s board of directors.

“Winter is always open to meeting new people, building relationships, and seeking new experiences. She has enthusiasm and energy that is contagious. She has a very positive attitude centered on her faith and gratitude resulting is some amazing achievements,” says Tapke. “Our community is a better place for having students like Winter pass through our doors. Thank you, Thomas More.”

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  1. Sanjana Grover says:

    Inspiring article. People like Winter have the ability to create ripples of change. Am sure she can create partnerships for other communicable and rising non-communicable diseases as part of her ongoing work for greater public health impact. Am sure organizations like IAVI would benefit and welcome an alliance with her.

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