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Camellia Moses Okpodu

Research director and STEM educator Camellia Moses Okpodu was born on January 24, 1964 in Portsmouth, Virginia. Okpodu was the fourth of five children born to Frank Moses, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, and Luerevia Fullwood Moses. She graduated from West Brunswick High School in 1982, and then enrolled at North Carolina State University where she received her B.S. degree in biochemistry in 1987, and her Ph.D. degree in plant physiology and biochemistry in 1994. Upon graduation, Okpodu was awarded a postdoctoral research fellowship in plant molecular biology at the Virginia Institute of Technology. She also received certificates in Documentation and Record Keeping from the BioPharma Institute Program, in Forensic DNA Databases and Courtroom Consideration from the National Institute of Justice via the Forensics Training Network, and in Hazardous Communication from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In 1996, Okpodu joined the faculty at Hampton University as an assistant professor in the department of biology. While there, she served as program director and principal investigator for Project O.A.K. from 1992 to 2002, and as chair of the department of biology from 1999 to 2000. In 2002, Okpodu left Hampton and joined the faculty at Elizabeth City State University where she was appointed to an endowed professorship and served for one year as the chair of the biology department. She then moved to Norfolk State University in 2003 where she was named professor and chair of the biology department. She also served as the director of the National Institutes of Health Extramural Research Office, director of the Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence, and as director of the Group for Microgravity and Environmental Biology (formerly, the Center of Microgravity and Environmental Biology).

Okpodu is a member of the Sigma Xi, Beta Kappa Chi, and the American Society of Plant Biology. Okpodu served as a reviewer for the Journal of Applied Phycology, and has published her research in the Journal of Plant Physiology and the Journal of Plant Science. Her academic and professional awards include the Gordon Research Conference Travel Award, the Intelligence Community Faculty Scholar Award, and both the Award of Recognition and the Special Recognition of Merit Award from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In addition, she served as a National Institutes of Health Genome Fellow in 2006, an Extramural Research Associate Fellow in 2006, and as an American Council on Education Fellow in 2007.

Camellia Moses Okpodu was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 20, 2013.

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North Carolina State University

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Holden Beach, North Carolina

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I don't need nobody to get me nothin'. Just open the door and I'll get it myself. - James Brown

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Molecular biologist and plant biochemist Camellia Moses Okpodu (1964 - ) former chair of the Norfolk State University Biology Department, was the first Marshall Rauch Distinguished Professor at Elizabeth City University and the second director of the Norfolk State University’s Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence.


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Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Camellia Okpodu's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Camellia Okpodu lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Camellia Okpodu describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Camellia Okpodu describes her research on the Emancipation Oak pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Camellia Okpodu describes her research on the Emancipation Oak pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her mother's side of the family

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her mother

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Camellia Okpodu describes her father's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her parents

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Camellia Okpodu describes her likeness to her parents

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Camellia Okpodu describes being raised by her uncle and aunt

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Camellia Okpodu describes the leaf collection that she submitted for a 4-H competition

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Camellia Okpodu describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Camellia Okpodu talks about Wilmington, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Camellia Okpodu talks about grade school

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her extracurricular activities in school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her uncle Legrand incorporating North Myrtle Beach

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Camellia Okpodu describes her decision to attend North Carolina State University

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Camellia Okpodu describes becoming Miss Brunswick County

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Camellia Okpodu describes her time at North Carolina State University

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Camellia Okpodu describes why she became interested in biochemistry

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Camellia Okpodu talks about sports at North Carolina State University

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Camellia Okpodu describes her time in graduate school at North Carolina State University

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Camellia Okpodu talks about Arlene Maclin, Esther Terry, and Roseanne Runte

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Camellia Okpodu describes her doctoral dissertation

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her doing her postdoctoral work at Virginia Polytechnic and State University

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Camellia Okpodu describes her time as professor at Hampton University

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Camellia Okpodu describes her projects at Hampton University

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her books

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Camellia Okpodu talks about Dr. Douglas Depriest

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Camellia Okpodu describes her transition from Hampton University to Norfolk State University

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Camellia Okpodu describes her time as chair of a department at Norfolk State University

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Camellia Okpodu talks about photosynthesis

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her work with undergraduate research pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her work with undergraduate research pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Camellia Okpodu describes her time as the director of the Office of Extramural Research

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Camellia Okpodu talks about genetically modified food

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Camellia Okpodu talks about the Dozoretz National Institute for Mathematics and Applied Sciences

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Camellia Okpodu talks about the Mid-Atlantic Consortium-Center for Academic Excellence

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Camellia Okpodu reflects on her career

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her concerns for parents and the next generation

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Camellia Okpodu reflects on her legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Camellia Okpodu talks about her family

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Camellia Okpodu talks about how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Camellia Okpodu describes her photographs







Camellia Okpodu describes her projects at Hampton University
Camellia Okpodu describes her time as the director of the Office of Extramural Research
You're writing proposals there at Hampton [University, Hampton, Virginia]--$$Yes.$$--and for--what were some of the projects you were trying to fund?$$Well, I wrote a proposal to NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] to fund my research in the microgravity research that I was doing, I wrote a proposal for my, National Science Foundation [NSF] for a Research Experience for Undergraduates [REU], I wrote one to NIH [National Institute of Health] as part of the MARC [Minority Access to Research Careers] proposal which was part of a larger group of proposals that we all wrote which we considered AREA Grant [National Institute of Health's Academic Research Enhancement Award], I participated in the writing of an ANPS, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority in Science, so I was actively involved in a number of those proposals.$$Okay. Tell us a little bit about microgravity, now that's just something that NASA is interested in, right?$$Yeah.$$(Unclear) What happens to plants in low gravity situations, right$$Right, well I'm no longer doing that research but one of the things we know that plants have responsive genes that turn on a response to changes in gravitational pull, so right now you can take a--you've probably done this. You grow a plant, if you look at the plant on the side, you know--if you've probably seen this, and then plant will grow towards--grow up, so how does a plant know that's up? So we looked for genes that we could disrupt because those are gravity sensing genes, and we looked for that and that's what I was trying to do at Hampton. I designed something I called The Modular Plant, Plant Module PM--MPM; I never got to drop it in the drop tower, and what we were trying to do was look at those early events of development. What I had found over the years with the inositol enzymes is that those enzymes got turned on very early in, in development. So anytime you're sensing the change, they return normal within--actually within seconds, which--at the time when we were telling people this, they didn't believe it to be true, and then Dr. Bolson, along with others, have shown that this is really--a change in the transcript level occurs very quickly. So I--my question is what happens very early in microgravity? And so I had developed a way to study this; unfortunately, I never got a chance to do it, I left Hampton, went to Elizabeth City State [University, Elizabeth City, North California], by the time I got the thing in place--my contract moved to Elizabeth City State, I--the person I was working with at NASA retired or left, and so I was never able to fulfill that research but I did design the module and my understanding is that it works, so I did do that, and that's one of the things that was very successful.$$Tell us a little bit more about this module. I had a note about it here but what was it (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--I designed it in such a way that as it dropped through the tower, that you could actually slowly or quickly freeze the material so by the time it got to the end of the tower which was a thirty second drop, that you could take lapse times, so I had it designed where you could--it would kill plants after one second, it would kill some of the--it'll freeze other plants after five seconds, and so forth and so on. So you could do what we call a dose response. So you could look at--isolate the tissue and see what happened early on the first second of dropping and see what we call subtractive DNA analysis to see if there was any genes turned on or off as a result, as you would do the gravitational but I never got a chance to do it. So the thing is created, we showed it work, I never got to do the experiments.$$Did you ever get a chance to see the results of how it worked?$$Yeah, I got to do it, I just never got to do the experiments.$$Okay, all right.$$It worked. We designed it and it worked, we built it but I never got to--'cause the person I was working with got changed to a different mission and then NASA Glenn [Center for Research, Cleveland, Ohio] was not doing the drop tower research anymore.$$Okay. Now what was Project Oak at Hampton?$$That was the REU (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--That was the--$$(Simultaneous)--That was the Research Experience for Undergraduates.$$Okay.$$I named it Project Oak, Opportunity Alliance Network, after the fact that I was bringing students in--college students from all over the country, to come to an HBCU, spend eight weeks with us and do research centered around the Emancipation Oak that's a live--living laboratory. So we did pathology, we isolated whatever pathogen was from the leaves. We did micro-- molecular biology where did the isolation of DNA from both prepared and herbarium stored samples and we did some biochemistry in analyzing the different types of iso-enzymes that were seen in the leaves in response to different stresses. So it was just simply using the Emancipation Oak as the foundational research project for our--what we were doing.$In 2007, you were director of the NIH [National Institute of Health] Extramural Research Office [sic, Office of Extramural Research, OER] here. What did that entail?$$So when I became a department chair, I realized that part of the problem was--I did a survey and people weren't writing proposals, and it's because I learned about Vroom's expectancy theory. You're like, "What, you're a biochemist, what do you know about all this sociology work?" So Vroom's idea is to change an organization there's some intrinsic things that people come with that you're not gonna be able to do, you know? If I'm a runner, I'm wired to be a runner and--but there are some things that you can manage that's an expectation. So most of us are intrinsically motivated but we have an expectation that you would provide me the tools by which I can have--affect my own change, and so if you want to change organizational culture or outlooks, one of the things you can do is manage expectations by providing students--people with the proper tools. So what I, what I found--my idea was--this was hypothesis-driven research that I did was trying to figure out how to get people to write proposals and most people would wanna write. I mean most people wanna write but they felt like, "You didn't give us the infrastructure or the tools." And so I developed a training program when I would train people to write proposals and then I would actually work with them and actually draft the proposals. And so one of the ones that we had the most success with is this Mid-Atlantic Consortium that we had between Morgan State [University, Baltimore, Maryland] and Norfolk State [University, Norfolk, University] and that we brought a group of people together and we sat down through the OER office and we wrote a proposal together. And then we crafted that proposal such that when we submitted it for final submission, it was one of the--it was the top proposal. We were told by the agency our proposal ranked number one out of the forty-one applications that they got. And it was because of the approach we decided. I didn't have a work shop just to be having a work shop. I had a work shop with tangible outcomes that when they left, they actually had something that they could submit. They had to massage it a little bit more, and I helped them in the process. But--so that was what the OER office did. We were a research development office. And I did that up until last year where I found that it was just a little bit too much--too difficult. In managing that, I micromanaged a lot. I don't do well in micromanaging. I figure that you tell me what it is you do and I can manage my own expectations, so that was--I just decided that I couldn't be effective at doing it so I'm no longer doing that. I still help people. The other day, somebody called me and said "Can you help me write this proposal?" I helped 'em write it because in the end run, the long run, you want people to be able to get tenure. The other thing I saw is that a lot of the young women, I thought, were not getting tenure. I don't know the reason why they were leaving, but I know part of it was they weren't getting it because they didn't have funded projects. And so I opened up the competition for anyone who wanted to apply. I helped-- helped anyone, but a lot of the young women I guess came because they saw me, and I guess for some reason I was--that translated to them. I helped anyone who wanted to be helped however, but a number of them were successful in getting funded projects and were able to get tenure, and I think it was directly related to that early grant; because if they hadn't been there, the process--even though we have an officer-sponsored program, it's not an easy process to get through. So I kinda helped them get through the process and get a final project that they could submit. Yep.