Inspiring Nottingham Research Fellows
Babatunde Okesola is a Nottingham Research Fellow in the School of Chemistry
Exploring new frontiers in soft matter science and nanomedicine
Why did you apply for a fellowship?
I am passionate about building my international profile and being awarded a prestigious fellowship will enable me to be at the forefront of exciting interdisciplinary research and strive to establish myself as a leading researcher in soft matter science and nanomedicine. The award of a prestigious fellowship will allow me time, freedom and stability to learn and develop an internationally distinct research direction in these new areas.
How would you explain your research?
I am obsessed with designing gel-phase materials (if it looks like Jell-o – or jelly in the UK – then it is a gel) and their usage in interdisciplinary research. Gel materials are fascinating with applications in everyday life, from cosmetics to biomaterials. Gels created by assembling simple organic molecules in water using non-covalent interactions such as hydrogen bonding, are particularly of interest to me.
These type of gels are called molecular or self-assembling hydrogels. Unlike hydrogels created with covalent interactions (also known as polymer hydrogels), molecular hydrogels are tailorable, biomimetic, nanofibrous, programmable, responsive, and reversible, making them ideal smart nanomaterials. I have previously designed and created hydrogels that can remove toxic chemicals from waste water, recovered gold nanoparticles from simulated mine waste streams, encapsulate and deliver drug candidates, direct biomineralisation, stimulate cell signalling in vitro, and promote tissue regeneration in vivo.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
Nature offers an enormous source of inspiration for exciting science. I am fascinated by the way nature has evolved to elegantly fabricate dynamic and functional soft matter/gel-phase materials (cytoplasm, algae, jellyfish, brain, skin, muscle, etc). Unlike hard matters that dominate our world, the amazing potential of gel materials is relatively underexplored in science. I migrated from Nigeria to the UK to carry out a PhD project under the supervision of Professor David K. Smith at the University of York. The synthesis and characterisation of mechanisms by which simple organic molecules self-assemble to create functional hydrogels was the focus of my PhD project. Knowing that I could gain the kind of expertise that I could only dream about in Nigeria was a source of motivation to pursue and focus on research in supramolecular chemistry and soft matter science in the UK.
How will your research affect the average person?
Findings from my research could provide new treatment solutions for patients with chronic diseases and nucleate new ideas on how biomaterials can be designed without eliciting unfavourable immune responses from the host. Improved patient health and wellbeing, increased productivity, and reduced health and social care costs are some of the potential benefits.
I lived in a village without electricity or running water and walked barefoot for over two miles to attend the nearest primary school… nothing is impossible for those who believe and stay focused.
What challenges are you hoping to tackle?
Chronic diseases including arthritis, chronic wounds, gum disease, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases amongst others are one of the greatest threats to human health. Most chronic diseases are driven by chronic inflammation, causing tissue damage at the site of inflammation. Similarly, failure and rejection of medical implants and devices due to chronic inflammation are major barriers to clinical success and affect millions of patients globally.
Interdisciplinary research is key to discovering treatments for patients with chronic diseases, with new biomimetic and multifunctional soft nanomaterials offering the potential to deter chronic inflammation in favour of healthy tissue growth. My research draws together expertise in organic synthesis, analytical chemistry, molecular self-assembly, biomaterial science, immunology, microbiology, tissue engineering, and molecular biology/bioinformatics to accurately and effectively tackle the menace of chronic diseases. I am passionate about the challenges this presents as it gives me the opportunity to expand my multidisciplinary skillset, push boundaries in nanomedicine, collaborate and network broadly.
What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?
Bagging a PhD degree in Chemistry was a greatest moment of my career so far. It was tough but tough times never last!
Who or what has helped you get to where you are today?
From first cry to final breath, life is full of challenges! In my formative years, I lived in a village without electricity or running water. We relied on kerosene lanterns for light and walked barefoot for kilometres to fetch water from streams and rivers. I walked barefoot for over two miles to attend the nearest primary school and skipped school on countless days to assist my parents (who were not privileged to have a formal education) to tend our food crops. Life during my PhD was nothing but an embodiment of struggles. Having to juggle a partially funded PhD research with a part-time care job and the care of a family with a new-born was life-draining. Despite all odds, I have never allowed my setbacks to set me back in life.
Nothing is impossible for those who believe and stay focused. I believe in God (my present help in time of trouble), I believe in myself and I believe in the incredible power of having the right friends and mentors in my network. None of my achievements would have been possible without the support of my wife Abimbola. The effort of my parents, who against all odds, ensured I had a good education can never be forgotten. My PhD supervisor (Professor David K. Smith), Dr Anthony Wild (for the award of Wild Fund Scholarship to support my PhD project), PIs (Professor Alvaro Mata, Dr Tina Chowdhury, Professor Anna David, and Professor Rachel Williams), and mentors (Professor Tokunbo Taiwo, Professor Dave Adams and Professor Owen Addison) are instrumental in my career journey to date.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
First, start out with a good self-image. How you see and feel about yourself will have tremendous impact on how far you go in life and finding fulfilment in your career. What somebody thinks about your race, gender, accent, skin colour, intellectual capability, faith or background is immaterial. The truth is, you will never rise above the image you have of yourself in your own mind. Second, be creative, be curious, keep an open mind, and stay focused. Make the best of every opportunity. Tough times never last but tough people do! Third, do not downplay the importance of a good mentorship and a network of reliable people that can support you when the going gets tough. The future is yours for the taking! Go for it!
How does being based at the University of Nottingham allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?
The University of Nottingham is a rich scientific environment with an incredible culture and structure that promotes collaboration. This is critically important to drive highly interdisciplinary research like mine. And a great opportunity to pitch my tent next to the giant on whose shoulders I can continue to stand. I am fascinated by the culture of equality and diversity that exists at the University of Nottingham.
It has always been my earnest desire to be a principal investigator of a research lab and become a seasoned professor, pushing boundaries in science, making impact in society and inspiring the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists and leaders. The award of the prestigious Nottingham Research Fellowship presents an incredible opportunity to make this happen.