Listening to Grace Ibitamuno recount her story was both inspiring — and exhausting.
“In between morning sickness and my coursework, I thought about the example I wanted to set for my future son,” Ibitamuno said at the Executive Women of New Jersey’s recent “Salute to the Policy Makers” gala.
The night was dedicated to 32 women executives honored for their leadership in business, government and academia, with proceeds from the event funding the organization’s Graduate Merit Scholarship for nontraditional female graduate students in New Jersey.
EWNJ has awarded more than $1.3 million to deserving candidates over more than 30 years, including Ibitamuno, a student pursuing a combined medical and doctoral degree at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and School of Public Health.
“As a wife and a mother with a dream to be free to dream without being held back by financial limitations, EWNJ has been a proverbial burden-lifter,” Ibitamuno said.
While Ibitamuno said she was born to parents who had emigrated to the U.S., she applied to Marymount University from Nigeria, the “land of her roots.”
“I landed at Dulles Airport with $500 to my name, my acceptance letter and a dream,” she said.
After working several jobs while earning her bachelor’s degree in biology, just shy of 21 years of age, Ibitamuno said she went on to work in a laboratory studying cancers of the female reproductive system and another dedicated to creating a preventative vaccination against HIV.
“As time and chance would have it, I was a member of the team responsible for its discovery,” she said.
She continued her work in scientific research as a technical writer, researching the safety and toxicity of new drugs before they could safely be used in clinical human trials.
Still, she said she often found she was bored when not working or studying.
“So, I wrote,” Ibitamuno said. “It felt like I was trying to catch the wind at first, deleting more so than writing, until I attended a writer’s conference.”
It was there, she said, that she could best discuss her ideas with likeminded people about her passion for social justice and creative writing.
It also is where she said she got the idea to write about human trafficking.
“I went home, researched the topic and, the deeper I got, the heavier I felt, so I wrote,” Ibitamuno said. “I personified a survivor of sex trafficking trying to pave a new path for herself while dealing with the demons from her past. I wrote about love, hope, dashed dreams, growing pains, and the painful beauty of life.
“And, in December of 2016, my debut novel, ‘Not Yet Beautiful,’ was published.”
Ibitamuno said this also was around the time her morning sickness started, as she and her husband were expecting their first child.
“My wanting to be able to contribute more is the reason why I am in the second year of my combined medical and doctoral degree program at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and within the department of epidemiology at the School of Public Health,” she said.
Upon completion of both degrees, Ibitamuno said, she plans to work at the intersection of medicine and science, studying important subjects such as complications and fatalities in childbirth, the impact of screening programs for certain cancers and mental health in immigrant communities.
“The EWNJ Graduate Merit Scholarship offered my husband and I options and training opportunities that I could embrace while falling back on reliable and nurturing care for our toddler son,” she said. “It has made my path to becoming a physician researcher easier and I am thankful for this organization and every single one of its supporters.”