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From GED to Ph.D., Science Turns MSU Student's Life Around

Nkrumah Grant
Alec Gerstenberger
Evolutionary biologist and Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate Nkrumah Grant

He grew up in the public housing projects, dropped out of high school and spent time in juvenile detention. That’s how the story of evolutionary biologist and Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate Nkrumah Grant began. But he’ll be the first to tell you, where you started doesn’t have to dictate where you end up.

In our partnership with Michigan State University's Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program, we are featuring the stories of student scientists. Here’s Nkrumah’s story.

My name is Nkrumah Grant. So the name is actually belonged to a president of Ghana which is in West Africa. 

I’ve always been interested in science from the time I was a child. I remember clearly I would go and pick up black widows [spiders] and I would go and pick up praying mantises and you know play with these things and take them home and collect them.

nkrumah adjusting a slide on the microscope
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU

We grew up in the projects: Daniel Heights projects at the time in Saginaw. My mom, she was a single parent. She would work maybe third shift she would come home you know just to get us ready for school and she would get rest while we were at school.

So, in middle school, I was inducted to the National Jr. Honor Society. This was a program, you know, for people who were doing good in school. I went to the awards ceremony and she couldn’t be there so I went there by myself. You know, I saw everybody there with their families, you know their parents, people who were supporting them, and I just felt alone at the moment and I decided to just walk home.

And here I am with this certificate and I just remember just crumpling that thing up throwing it in the river and saying “well, no one cares anyways, why should I?”

I think immediately you could see my behavior drop and change in school. I became problematic. I think that carried on through high school the first couple of years and I ended up dropping out.

nkrumah with his two lab assistants
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU
Evolutionary biologist and Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate Nkrumah Grant with two lab assistants

I mean I walked the streets a lot. I remember several times my mom driving 11 or 12 o’clock at night looking for me then finding me not even saying anything. I knew that red Ford Contour. She’d just stop and I'd just open the car door, get in she says nothing to me we just drive home. I know my mom said one time she feared on day shed come home and she'd see yellow tape around the house. I would tell her "oh so and so went to jail today or so and so when to prison," and you know it was just she was kind of worried all of the time.

I think one of the most important comments she made was "at least go and get a GED [General Education Development] give yourself a chance." I kind of took that you know kind of negatively like you just think that’s all I can do right is get a GED and internally I was just like "I’ll show you what I can do I’ll show myself what I can do."

That love for science just started coming back. So, in my research I use bacteria to study evolution in real time. We know that life first evolved in an environment where there was no oxygen, and by understating how things are maintained or lost over time maybe perhaps then we can start to design systems that in the face of climate change or in the face of evolution that is always going to be there right, that maintains its value to the organism.

nkrumah looking at the lab computer screen
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU
Evolutionary biologist and Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate Nkrumah Grant

As I was growing up I would wear my hoodies - we'd have our do-rags (the head wrap), something you’d associate with a gangster. To see me walk into a college classroom I think other people would say "well you wouldn’t wear this in school you don’t belong here," right?

But when I transferred here to Michigan State University, I felt like ok now I’m here in this doctoral program and because the expectations were higher I couldn’t be myself. So, coming full circle to when I was feeling abandoned by others I felt like I was abandoning myself. And I remember the next day wearing something over the top straight inner city to the lab. This is what I’m going to do from now on; I’m going to be me.

Nkrumah smiling
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU
Evolutionary biologist and Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate Nkrumah Grant

I put myself through a lot of stress, did a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have done had I know where I would be today. And I think that’s the beauty of life. There is infinite amount of outcomes. We just have to have faith if we say we are going to do something whatever  it is we say we are going to do we can do it.

From GED to Ph.D., that’s kind of cool, you kind of got a rhyme, you got a nice little ring to it, I think.

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