Umaru Barrie is a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) candidate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Before he decided to dedicate the majority of his twenties to an intensive 8 year program, he was merely an immigrant student with no idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Umaru’s story is one of resilience and dedication to the pursuit of a higher calling. He’s constantly expanding his knowledge of the medical field as well as his comfort zone – this is his story.
Civil War in Sierra Leone
In 1991, former army corporal Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began its campaign against President Momoh of Sierra Leone. This sparked a decade’s long civil war which left the country war-torn with over 50,000 dead by the turn of the century. Umaru was born in Sierra Leone during this period and was forced to flee into Guinea with his family.
His father traveled to the United States as a refugee and it wasn’t until a decade later that he was reunited with his father and the rest of his family in New York City.
Early Life and Education
During the 10 year period before immigrating to America, Umaru studied in Guinea, West Africa. Although most members of his family didn’t obtain a higher education, Umaru’s mother instilled in him a respect and appreciation for education.
Although he obtained an 8th grade education in Guinea he was pushed back to the 6th grade in the United States. The main reasoning behind this setback was because Umaru didn’t speak English and had to take an English as a second language (ELA) class.
This was the most difficult period in Umaru’s life – learning a new language, acclimating to a new culture, and trying to stay out of trouble. Umaru had run-ins with law enforcement multiple times, albeit for minor offenses, and witnessed some of his friends become imprisoned for more serious crimes.
Be it by chance or serendipity, Umaru said he was surprised he made it through that period in his life. Many things could have occurred during that time that would have forced him to drop out or end his chances at a college education. Although he had his early struggles with moving to a new country, he managed to be the 8th grade class valedictorian, and defy all the odds.
“That was a testing moment in my life and I honestly don’t know what got me through.”
Moving Out of the Big City
After living, studying, and working in New York City most of his life, Umaru decided to mix things up by attending SUNY New Paltz: he change cities he decided to pursue international business.
True, business is somewhat of a science but it wasn’t of much interest to Umaru. Debits and credits didn’t make much sense but what did make sense was his passion for biology. This ultimately fueled his decision to leave the quiet, and somewhat hipster-esque town of New Paltz to attend the State University of New York at Albany.
At first, he didn’t know what he wanted to study but knew he liked science. Naturally, a Bio major would be a good fit. It wasn’t until his first summer when it finally clicked for him and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his career.
Umaru spent the summer doing basic science research with faculty at the University – not because he had a passion for research but because he wanted a summer job.
“The job paid $2500 so I kept telling myself I can earn $2500.”
A few weeks into classes everything started coming together and the research opportunity opened another world he never envisioned. Not only did he want to be a physician but he also wanted to be a researcher.
Umaru then spent the next few summers assisting with research projects, conducting research in Spain and Brazil, and engaging with faculty members to develop his passions. The road map was clear – Umaru wanted to be a PhD and an MD. While most can barely tackle the difficulties of being a med student, Umaru wanted to throw on the challenges of being a PhD student on top of his already aggressive workload.
Through mentorship and networking he was able to enter a program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center to pursue his dreams.
The MD/PhD track is an 8 year intensive program that combines medical school with a PhD course load. The first few years is spent in med school with other medical students and the next 4 to 5 years branches out into a PhD program. After those 4 to 5 years the students go back into medical school to finish their medical rotations.
The workload is a lot, to be blunt, but Umaru says it’s doable. The med school training really focuses on retaining and regurgitating knowledge while the PhD program focuses on creating new knowledge. One program focuses on exploring what has already been discovered while the other program emphasizes exploring the unknown.
Umaru is expected to graduate in 2024 where he will go into residency. Not only will he need to find specialty as a physician but he also needs a specialty when it comes to his research. Just to name a few – Umaru is interested in immunology and microbiology for his research and either emergency medicine, trauma surgery, or neurosurgery as his specialty.
Giving Back to Africa
Umaru’s ultimate goal is to be able to give back to Africa by creating an intricate network of medical systems to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Sierra Leone might be far removed from its history of civil war, but the spread of Ebola in that country threatens to do just as much harm.
Umaru believes that infectious diseases such as Ebola are able to spread in developing countries in Africa because there is no well established medical network to combat these diseases.
His research background and his desire to enter emergency medicine and surgery directly relates to the needs in these countries and Umaru hopes to make a big impact throughout these countries.
Passions Outside of the Classroom
When he’s not studying for his next exam, signing up for new research projects, or figuring out ways to pursue other passions inside of the classroom, Umaru is working diligently to pursue passions outside of the classroom, as well.
Whether it be devoting a month to teach English to students in Haiti or mentoring students in the United States, Umaru is constantly finding ways to stay busy. His biggest passion is mentorship and he strongly believes everyone needs a mentor no matter what stage of life you’re entering.
When asked what he would tell his younger self he responded, quite emphatically, “find a mentor!” When asked what he would ask his older self he responded,
“What is the most impactful thing that I have done?”
You can find out more about Umaru and his many passions on his LinkedIn page here.