A Southern California native whose father is Nigerian, Otana Jakpor visited Nigeria for the first time last Christmas. In addition to spending time with cousins and extended family she didn’t before know existed, the aspiring physician shadowed doctors to see what practicing medicine was like in the West African country.
The last thing she expected was to get a cell phone call from Glamour magazine.
The double major in biological sciences and global health had been selected as one of the magazine’s “Top 10 College Women” for 2013. Each year for the past 56 years, the magazine has singled out and celebrated 10 of what they consider to be the country’s most accomplished, dedicated and inspiring young women.
Chosen from an initial pool of more than 1,000, the 10 winners were flown to New York City for an April 3 awards ceremony and panel discussion about how to find — or create — your dream job. Hosted at Columbia University’s Barnard College on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, panelists included Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, actress Anna Chlumsky of HBO’s Veep and several other nonprofit and media luminaries.
“The best part was getting to meet the other winners — they were all such incredible, talented women in their different areas,” said Jakpor, a junior. “It was really an honor to get to talk with them.”
Other winners included an Afghan women’s rights activist, a robotics researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an international soccer star. Past winners of this award include the likes of domestic goddess Martha Stewart, Cosmopolitan magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief Kate White and former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller.
Jakpor was encouraged to apply last summer by program manager and Glamour Contributing Editor Katie Sanders.
“Otana is someone who, since elementary school, has been experimenting and thinking and acting to help regulate air quality,” Sanders said. “She’s someone we look at and say, ‘Wow, we want to learn more.’ The Top 10 College Women are working to become the next generation of leaders, game-changers and change-makers. So this is what we look for and what we felt Otana embodied.”
No stranger to public accolades, Jakpor has been distinguishing herself for nearly a decade through her scientific research and commitment to environmental and global health issues. As a 13-year-old student, she testified at a hearing of the California Air Resources Board to share her research on the negative effects of ozone-generating air purifiers on pulmonary function.
“I grew up in Riverside, where pollution can seem like a normal part of life — it can take awhile to realize it’s not supposed to be that way,” she said fervently. “My Mom had severe asthma and respiratory problems, which required frequent hospitalizations. So growing up, I noticed how much of a problem air pollution can be.”
As an ambitious high school student, she caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House. She won the President’s Environmental Youth Award in 2007, and as part of that experience she met with the EPA administrator.
She definitely made the most of the opportunity.
“There was a point at the end where we were supposed to have our photo taken together, and at that time the EPA was looking at ozone standards and whether or not they should strengthen the laws. So I took that moment to share my research with him,” she laughed.
She went on to receive an award from the Discovery Channel and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and has volunteered and interned at the American Lung Association and USC’s Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, respectively.
Though she began as a global health major at Keck School of Medicine of USC, the summer after her freshman year she took a Problems Without Passports (PWP) biology course — Oxford Global Health — in which students traveled to Oxford University in the United Kingdom to conduct research. Her project focused on the global health challenge of the effects of traditional, biomass-burning cook stoves, used primarily in developing countries and disproportionately affecting women and children. The experience led her to take a second major in biological sciences in USC Dornsife.
“It’s been really nice having majors in two schools. I think in any field — but especially in medicine — it’s important to have a broad view of the world. One thing Dornsife emphasizes is the importance of being interdisciplinary and taking insights from different fields and integrating them to solve challenges.
“I feel like I definitely made the right choice in choosing USC for a multitude of reasons, but one is that there are so many opportunities — I never feel limited.”