Ezinne and Ukachi Emeruwa: Sisters Head to Residencies on East and West Coasts

For all but two years since birth, sisters Ukachi and Ezinne Emeruwa have shared a roof. They played basketball together in high school, went to Princeton together as undergrads, and shared quarters and emotional support at Columbia P&S. To say they are best friends is probably an understatement.

They come from a “medicine family.” Their parents are Nigerian immigrants who came to the United States on college scholarships to study chemistry, the father at Syracuse University, the mother at Edinboro University. The parents both attended Howard University, where their mother received a master’s degree in chemical engineering and their father graduated medical school. The family settled in Riverside, Calif., where their dad practices internal medicine and obstetrics and their mother works on the administrative side of his medical practice. Their older brother, Iheanacho, who goes by “Obi,” graduated from P&S and Columbia Business School last year and is now an intern in internal medicine at NY-Presbyterian.

“Like a lot of kids of physicians,” says Ukachi, the elder of the two by a year and a half, “we grew up knowing we wanted to be doctors, eventually. But first we wanted to be singers.”

“You can always become a doctor when you’re older,” Ezinne says, “unlike being a pop star.”

Though they share many things, their professional ambitions diverge. Ezinne “was always more of a quantitative thinker.” She studied physics at Princeton before coming to P&S and seriously considered pursuing a career as a scientist. “That was the question—physics or medicine—which would make me happy? Ultimately, I decided that an academic career as a physicist is not as interactive; in medicine, you put your science to use every day with patients. There’s a social aspect that I loved.”

At Columbia, she enrolled in the MD/MPH program, taking an extra year to work on a master’s degree in biostatistics from Mailman School of Public Health. During a project that measured health care expectations of patients with congenital heart disease—with mentor Julie Glickstein, MD, professor of pediatrics at CUMC—her nascent interest in cardiology blossomed. “It reminds me of physics,” Ezinne says. “It’s essentially a system of pumps and tubes governed by the laws of fluid dynamics, with some elements of E&M (electricity and magnetism). I’m a scientist at heart: I enjoy seeing everyday issues and thinking of scientific ways to find solutions to those problems.” After her residency in pediatrics, which she will begin at Stanford University, she intends to apply to fellowships in pediatric cardiology.

Ukachi also enrolled in the MD/MPH program, electing to spend her extra year studying public health at Harvard. There she coordinated a campaign to raise awareness of malaria, a disease whose devastating effects she had witnessed firsthand while visiting family in Nigeria and during an internship in Ghana before her senior year of college at Princeton, where she majored in economics, with an additional certificate in global health and health policy. The disease is personal for her. “My parents would tell us stories of when they had malaria as children, and just how much children were expected to fall ill with it,” Ukachi says. “When I got older and went on medical missions, I was shocked to see how the physicians were having to give out malaria treatment like candy and to hear how many still die from it. I thought to myself, ‘I understand we can’t change the tropical setting that promotes malaria transmission, but we know what causes it, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. How can this still be such a huge issue?”

Ukachi’s interests are, generally, more community-oriented. Some of this comes from her father. “It’s a small community,” Ukachi says of her hometown. “Everyone knew my dad; he delivered many of their sons and daughters. I remember him being really happy doing this work. He was always on call, but also really happy.” Ukachi will follow her father into obstetrics; this summer she will begin her residency in ob/gyn at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Massachusetts General Hospital Integrated Residency Program. The irregular hours or late-night calls don’t scare her. “I can fall asleep on the dot, so it’s doesn’t bother me.” She intends to carve out a niche for herself where community-level program development and delivering babies meet, with an added focus on malaria in pregnancy.

After a lifetime spent within earshot, the Emeruwa sisters are moving to opposite coasts to pursue their individual professional ambitions. Surprisingly, neither seems too worried. They maintain close connections with their parents and their brother, so there’s no reason to expect they will not continue to talk daily. “We’re both ready for it,” Ezinne says, laughing. “We know each other’s habits and are best friends, but we also get on each other’s nerves.”

“We’ve been spoiled to walk side-by-side for this long,” Ukachi adds, “so I think we’re both ready for real life. I look at it this way: Our parents left Nigeria in the age of snail mail, so honestly, what’s 3,000 miles to Skype and a cell phone?”

Read a Columbia News profile of the Emeruwa sisters.

Read a 2011 article about the Emeruwa siblings and other P&S siblings.