Spotlight Iowa City: UI senior finds passion in research abroad


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Gold leaf-shaped earrings dangled from Kalyani Eko's ears — just below her jet black hair — as the University of Iowa microbiology student strolled through her dorm room in Hillcrest, where she works as a resident assistant.

The half-Indian, half-Cameroonian's hands dart rhythmically with her speech as she explains the wide array of souvenirs spread throughout the area.

A painting from India created on black silk, a fan from Japan with contrasting designs gracing its folds on either side, and a mask from the Czech Republic — glazed in a swirl of red, orange, and white.Those are all items from just three of the more than 20 countries Eko has been to.

The 21-year-old rarely travels for vacation, however — she travels for research.

Eko, who goes by "Kolie," is a senior, and she started research during her freshman year. She originally worked wth salmonella, something she continues today.

Salmonella is a bacterial disease that can adhere to the epithelial intestinal lining and invade it. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever and typically last four to seven days.

"What I'm trying to do is turn off the genes that that help salmonella stick to your stomach," she said.

The Nairobi, Kenya, native's other areas of research include working in India with other water- and food-borne disease in India, such as typhoid fever. In Slovakia, she's researched Clostridium difficile — a bacteria that causes intestinal disease when other bacteria is cleaned out by antibiotics — which Eko said is a "big problem in nursing homes and hospitals."

She hasn't always been as passionate about research as she is now, though.

Before Eko came to the UI, she had her post-undergrad sights set solely on working toward becoming an M.D.

Her father — Lyombe Eko, 54, an associate journalism professor at Iowa — referred her to a flier in the mail for a research program during her freshman year.

Kalyani Eko was hesitant initially, but her father encouraged her to apply. He had a feeling research would be a good fit.

"Since Kolie was a kid, she was very inquisitive," Lyombe Eko said. "The first words that came out of her mouth was, 'Daddy, what is that?' and, 'Daddy, let me see.' "

She didn't take long to get hooked — her father said research was a "perfect match."

Her peers, such as Tom Beecher, a fellow UI senior and Hillcrest RA, can attest to her passion.

"She really just kind of lights up when she talks about any sort of research she gets to do or new countries she gets to explore," the 21-year-old said.

Now, instead of aiming only for an M.D. after she graduates in May 2011, she wants to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. program. Rather than just treating patients or just doing research, such a certification would allow her to have a lab and work as a doctor.

She still has the same urge to help people, but lab work has become as much of a part of her as anything else.

"I feel completely at home in the lab," Kalyani Eko said. "This is my zone. This is where I'm happy."

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