Becoming the change

Kena Lemu remembers seeing deaths from treatable diseases and the impact the HIV epidemic was having on her community when she was growing up in Oromia. She knew as a child that she wanted to be the change that her community needed.

Kena Lemu standing outside.
(Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Kena Lemu has always focused on the future. It has been her way to make it through hard times and was a crucial tactic early in life.

Genocide and systematic oppression in her homeland of Oromia — a regional state in Ethiopia — forced her family to flee for Kenya as refugees when she was 8. Then, just two years later, her family was relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, where she again needed to assimilate to another new lifestyle.

The changes were never easy. She had to quickly learn Swahili in Kenya to do well in school and then navigate through new social pressures in the U.S. But she kept her eyes on the future.

“I always thought about the future whenever I was in places like that,” she said. “When I was in Kenya, my parents assured us there’s a future out there. We prayed almost every day for us to get to a better place. I guess I always learned to think about the future. My mind always went toward, ‘This is what I have in mind for the future. This is where I’m going.'”

For most of her life, that vision has included a career in science where she could tackle health care problems she saw in Oromia. Now a senior at Carolina preparing for medical school interviews, she’s a significant step closer to that plan.

Lemu credits much of her success to the support and experiences she’s received through the Chancellor’s Science Scholars at Carolina. The program is designed to support Tar Heels who are pursuing STEM studies by providing access to research opportunities, funding, professional development, leadership training and mentorship.

“I feel like the Chancellor’s Science Scholars is one of the big reasons why I’ve come so far,” Lemu said. “Whenever I’m at the point of giving up, CSS was there to always pick me up.”

The foundation to medicine

Though Lemu stayed focused on her future, her experiences growing up in Oromia shaped that path. She recalls many deaths from treatable diseases, but her family’s experience with HIV stands out the most.

Her aunt, who contracted HIV during the peak of the HIV epidemic, gave birth to a daughter who was HIV positive — a stigma that impacted nearly every aspect of their lives. Her aunt passed away from the virus, and Lemu saw her cousin’s challenges living with HIV.

“I just saw that growing up, and I felt my heart breaking for her,” she said. “I think my interest in science started there. I wished I could do something about it. The more I learned about science, particularly viruses, I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to be the change that the community needed.”

The idea of pursuing a medical degree came to Lemu once her family arrived in the U.S., and she began to see her path more clearly.

“Back then, and even in Kenya, we didn’t get to see doctors. It wasn’t something that was readily available,” she said. “I didn’t really understand the need for it until I saw how available it was in the U.S. and how easily accessible things are. Looking back at it, I can see how easily treatable diseases were killing people back home.”

Becoming a Tar Heel

Lemu didn’t waste time after arriving in Greensboro. She attended North Carolina A&T’s STEM Early College and quickly got involved in research as a high schooler with Dr. Liesl Jeffers-Francis, who cultivated her interest for research. Her parents, she said, ensured she had every opportunity to pursue her interest.

“They sacrificed almost everything for my education,” Lemu said. “Even when we were in Kenya, it cost money to wear uniforms. It cost money for the book bags, materials, extracurriculars, and they weren’t working then. They were just living off money that we’d saved. They never made it feel like I couldn’t ask for something when it came down to school.”

Then, during her sophomore year of high school, her class took a field trip to UNC-Chapel Hill. On that tour, Lemu learned about the HIV Cure Center, a partnership between Carolina and private industry that is dedicated to finding a cure for HIV/AIDS.

She immediately knew Carolina was where she needed to be.

Lemu joined various pipeline programs at Carolina as a high school student and attended a public health symposium at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, eventually finding her calling.

“The idea of public health put into perspective everything I ever wanted to do,” Lemu said. “Whether it was HIV or whether it was primary care, it captured health on a global scale. So when I applied [to Carolina], I immediately applied as a nutrition public health student.”

Lemu was also selected to become a Chancellor’s Science Scholar. The program, she said, opened doors to research opportunities and provided a support network that helped her thrive at Carolina.

The program connected her with the HIV Cure Center, and as a student, she’s worked alongside Drs. David Margolis and Nancie Archin on HIV research. She also had the opportunity to work in a nutrition lab at Carolina and conduct research over the summer at Johns Hopkins University.

She said the network the Chancellor’s Science Scholars provides has served as the backbone of her college experience. No matter the time or topic, she could find a mentor ready to step in and help solve a problem or guide her. Having lived together as a cohort in their first year, her fellow scholars became some of her closest friends.

“They’re the support system — my motivation through this whole experience,” she said.

A mentor for the next generation

A core element of the Chancellor’s Science Scholar is giving back. It’s a mission Lemu put into action as an undergraduate.

As a Tar Heel, she has been an active member of the Refugee Support Center at Carolina, a student group focused on supporting local refugees in navigating through a new life in the U.S. Lemu volunteered to tutor children through the program and prepared adults for citizenship tests. She also plans to work for non-profit organizations after medical school, with hopes of providing support in underserved communities like the one she grew up in.

But most importantly, she wants to lift up the next generation of scientists the way the Chancellor’s Science Scholars has done for her.

“If I’m ever in a position where I can mentor people that are willing to pursue research or go into the field of medicine, I will make it a priority because I have seen the difference that diversity can make in medicine,” she said.

Learn more about the Chancellor’s Science Scholars and meet more scholars