EPISODE 035
Destined For Greatness
In this episode, it’s an honor to be joined by Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna is the Chief of Staff of the Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE).

At the age of 13, Augusta began experimenting with cement samples in the basement of her Elmont, New York home only to discover that she had a prodigious gift for science and engineering.


Augusta’s journey has taken her from that basement to the halls of Harvard University where she graduated cum laude with a degree in bioengineering AND biomedical engineering.

With plans to attend medical school for a dual Ph.D./MD, Augusta is passionate about advocating for educational and networking opportunities for black women and minorities in STEM fields.

When not meeting with Michelle or Barack Obama to discuss her research, she is working with BWISE to find ways to level the playing fields in both education, medicine, and innovation.


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Host - Monique Mills:

You are a representation of what we all wish for, you know, as black women and as those of us like myself, who, who has a daughter and I am like, just so proud of you. I know Erica is, she talks about you all the time, and I think it's so important, even though you've already been in a Coca-Cola commercial. I mean, this is nothing, but I think it's so important for people to hear your story, know what you've accomplished and continue to accomplish, and what's next for you. 


Host - Monique Mills:

Everyone, I want to introduce you to our guest today on Unpolished NBA, Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, and she is simply incredible. So Augusta, welcome to the Unpolished MBA.


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Hello everyone. Thank you so much, Monique, for having me on your podcast. 


Host - Monique Mills:

 It's a pleasure to have you. Today, we're going to dig into a few things, but I'm going to ask you the same questions that I ask everyone else that comes on a podcast. There are only two. And the first one is, are you an entrepreneur or a corporate employee?


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

 I am, let's say, an entrepreneur. Yes. 


Host - Monique Mills:

Okay. And that comes and goes right? Your career. It comes and goes. So the next thing is MBA or no MBA? 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

 No MBA 


Host - Monique Mills:

Well, from the sounds of things, I don't think you need it. And I'm one who does not believe people need it to be successful in business. That's the, uh, the whole point of this podcast, honestly. And so, let's dig in. Let's talk a little bit more, so I can't hold it back anymore. I just gotta tell the audience that you are a bioengineering and biomedical engineering major from Harvard University. 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Yes. 


Host - Monique Mills:

You graduated in 2020. And I first want you to even describe to us how you even decided on that major, and then also, how did you embark upon a journey to even be accepted into Harvard University? Do you want to start there?


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

 Sure. Sure. I love telling this story because it is one that I could have never predicted myself. I am 23 years old right now. And ten years ago, I started doing scientific research in my high school. I am from Elmont, New York, and attended Elmont High School, which is right outside of Queens. And I started working on projects with flatworms and yeast until I got introduced to cement and concrete research when I was 15 years old and started working on cement and building slabs and adding recycled glass and recycled clay into the cement slabs in my family basement and my parents will never, ever forget the time when I ruined, well, temporarily ruined their basement with cement. The basement was recently renovated, but this just captures the ingenuity and the excitement I felt working on my first engineering project as a teenager. And that kind of introduced me to engineering as my school, my high school didn't have courses in this area, and I was able to work at Columbia University and work on an oil well cementing project, and that's how I was connected to some wonderful mentors like Erica Jefferson. So I started college and I'll kind of, I guess, take you back to how I got to Harvard, but I started college with this budding interest in engineering, but also this interest in medicine and, and you know, biomedical sciences that I had cultivated during elementary, middle and high school. So when I found out that I can combine both of them, I did exactly that by just studying bioengineering. And then later got into some research with diagnostics and wearable technology. And yeah, now I want to pursue a Ph.D. in bioengineering and ultimately want to develop diagnostics that help meet the needs of underserved patient populations.

Now, when it comes to going to school at Harvard, it's nothing that I could have ever planned for or imagined. I have, like a, one of my best friends who is a year older than me, named Harold. He also attended Elmont high school, and he was like one of my first peer mentors. And he himself was able to apply to so many great schools like Harvard, Yale, and Ivy League schools that quite frankly, many students from Elmont were not even applying to or even attending. And he was successful in getting into all of those Ivy League schools. He ultimately chose to go to Yale, and just seeing his example, and his success propelled me to apply to Harvard, to apply to Yale, and apply to many top universities because I knew that I wanted to position myself in a place where I would have access to rigorous research opportunities, as well as access to academic and intellectual knowledge that I, you know, I was not always so privy to in my local Elmont community. So that encouraged me to just, I guess, shoot my shot. As you know, people in my generation would say and apply to college. And I just so happened to get into Harvard as well as all the colleges I applied to. And then, when I visited Harvard and saw the vibrant and diverse community, I decided to go there, and that's kind of how I ended up at Harvard.


Host - Monique Mills:

Girl, you make it sound so like, yeah, so this is kind of what happened, and it's actually amazing. And as someone who has a teenage daughter, I am going to have her watch this, and I say, watch this because this is just audio, but you and I are on camera. So I actually get a chance to see you and record this. And I am going to share this with every woman that I know, especially women of color. When you said, shoot your shot, you know, that actually took courage because when you put yourself out there like that, you risk rejection, and you were okay with that. You knew you were going to get somewhere. I want to rewind back to when you said, okay, about ten years ago, I'm like, wait a minute, doing the math, you're 23. So that means you started on this journey at like 13. Do they consider you some type of child prodigy?


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

es, they definitely do. I mean, I don't necessarily consider myself that. I just consider myself as Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, you know, a black dynamic woman who has been in science, who has been in research and is exploring interests, I guess, like more relevant to this podcast and entrepreneurship and business and my current role. But yeah, this is something that I started ten years ago at the age of 13, and what's been so critical to I guess this constant practice of shooting my shot and having courage is the mentorship that I've been able to receive. So I mentioned these peer mentors, but I also had more formal mentors through my teachers who so bravely just ran this science research program and kind of brought together the limited resources we had at our high school to provide such an opportunity to someone like me who's 13 years old. Like there are so many students who don't have this opportunity, especially black women students. So I recognize the privilege. I had to be exposed to like yeast and pipetting and flatworms and all these really cool things at a young age. And that mentorship and that genuine belief in my success is really what guided me throughout high school and cemented, I guess, quite figuratively and literally this desire to pursue science and desire to pursue engineering. So a really big part of this is mentors and people who, you know, I think past mentorship, sponsors, and individuals who may look like you or may resonate with your experience that you can look up to. So I was able to find that in both teachers and also in peers, and yeah, that's, that's how I, I guess I've become this child prodigy that some folks in my class might describe me as. 


Host - Monique Mills:

 You know, as you speak so much about mentors, I just want to say that the humbleness and everything that you’ve said is just so evident, and you, you pretty much give credit to everyone else. You know, certain things I say we’re born with, I don’t get the chance to take the credit for my intelligence or this and that it’s genetic, right? But I love the way that you recognize the circle of support that helps you get to certain places. And now you’re in a position with being chief of staff now of BWISE to continue that support for those that are even further beyond in your career than you are. Right? So tell me a little bit about how you became involved in BWISE or explain to the audience what BWISE is. I have had Erica on the podcast before, so I will link the episode with her, you all, so you can listen to that, but tell everyone what BWISE is and how you became involved.


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

So BWISE, or Black Women in Science and Engineering, is a nonprofit that was started by Erica Jefferson. And the goal of this organization primarily right now is to connect black women in STEM who are in the middle to senior levels of their careers with more leadership opportunities and continued economic empowerment. I met Erica Jefferson actually when I was presenting my research on cement and concrete at Michelle Obama's United State of Women in 2016, and I was just there presenting, talking about oil instrumenting, and Erica came up to me, and we immediately hit it off. And Erica became my first actually black woman mentor.
And is someone who I could fall back on and ask for guidance at Harvard because Harvard was, it was cool, but it was hard. 


Host - Monique Mills:

Yeah, engineering is hard. I'm a member of BWISE too, so.


 Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Oh, beautiful. Beautiful. So Erica became my mentor, and we, you know, have the shared passion, of course, for black women in STEM, and in collaboration with her during my time at Harvard, we hosted a few black women in STEM brunches and networking events. And I began to informally work with her to expand the BWISE mission to more than just women in the middle and, you know, who are at later stages of their career. So I had the wonderful opportunity just about three weeks ago to come on as BWISE's first employee, BWISE's inaugural fellow and BWISE's chief of staff to work more formally with Erica to expand our mission and expand our impact. BWISE is continuing to empower black women in STEM. But we now want to expand our focus to individuals like myself who have completed bachelor's degrees and are getting ready for the next step in their careers.

Oftentimes a lot of the preparation and a lot of the programs that like myself participate in give us the technical knowledge on how-to, let's say, conduct an experiment, how to pipette, how to comb, but oftentimes the intangible scales and the behavior shaping mentoring is missing. And we find that this type of information and guidance is super supercritical for the success of black women in STEM, but also in many fields. So it's been so great for the past, like less than a month working with Erica to think about how we can create more outlets for this for me as I am prepared to go to medical school next year, but also for more black women who quite simply want to know what's out there. I've learned so much about entrepreneurship so far. It's like, you know, from this discussion, you all can probably tell, like, my background is mostly in engineering and research and medicine. But this entrepreneurship side of things is super important and speaks to the multidimensionality that I would like to bring to my career as a physician-scientist, as someone who is developing technology, as someone who is ultimately helping to uplift black women in this space. So yeah, that's kind of how I got into BWISE, kind of what I'm doing right now. And yeah, it's been so, so wonderful and exciting to be working with Erica for this greater mission. 


Host - Monique Mills:

You know, I've talked to Erica, of course, I've known her for several years now. And our hope is that we have more Augusta's. That's our hope. And so the thing is, is what you're saying. There isn't much like real-life mentorship. Once you're out of college, like you, you would literally learn all these hard lessons that we've already learned and been through. By learning the hard way, and we don't want that because when you do that, that's why so many black women leave S.T.E.M, and we, we need you to stay.

It's a lot of politics. It's not about being smart or being intelligent. You've already proven that. Right? It's the politics and different things, as far as like, managing your career, that most people don't realize in the industry. And that's any industry, as, as you say, That's any industry while so yeah, our goal is definitely to have more Augusta's. You mentioned you are going to medical school. Wow. So tell me what your plans are you know, after you complete medical school? What's your purpose in going, and what do you hope to do afterward?


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

 Sure. So I specifically will be attending an MD-PhD program still to be determined. And what this program will afford me is both a Ph.D. in bioengineering and, of course, a medical degree. And I ultimately hope to radically transform medicine and make it more inclusive for folks who are often overlooked. So namely black folks, black women, queer folks, individuals who are immigrants, low income, et cetera. And I am still figuring out how exactly I want to do this. I can do this by entering academic medicine, having my own lab, developing diagnostic tools to help diagnose things like cervical cancer, tuberculosis, HIV aids, and then also a big part of this lab would be mentoring the next generation of scientists. But over the past few weeks, especially working with BWISE, I have been exposed to other ways that I can also have the same impact by, you know, maybe delving into biotechnology and perhaps taking the learnings from my Ph.D. in bioengineering with developing diagnostics and seeing how I can be involved in the commercialization of these products so that they could ultimately reach the hands and reach the communities that I so care about.

And it's been so, so great to just have this exposure because when you're studying engineering, when you're preparing to apply to medical school, there are certain things that need to be checked off. Right? You need to take your classes. You need to do research. And oftentimes, in the midst of this frenzy of like applying to medical school, you might not always have the time to be exposed to all of these other applications that would require the expertise of a doctor, of, of an engineer. So this entrepreneurial side of things is also something that I'm looking to potentially do after I complete medical school. But ultimately, I am aiming to go to a program where I am able to get support and mentorship, and coaching on all the different avenues I can pursue to ultimately have the biggest impact on the health of black folks in America because health disparities and inequities are so deeply woven into healthcare in our country. I want to bring my engineering expertise, my engineering toolkit to help solve this. So whether that's through academic medicine, having my own lab, whether it's through becoming an entrepreneur, commercializing biotechnology, or maybe doing all of it, that's…  



Host - Monique Mills:

Yep, life is long. Yeah. Life is long. 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Yeah. 


Host - Monique Mills:

So, I mean, you've already accomplished so much. And the thing is like your bachelor's degrees in bioengineering and biomedical engineering. And by the way, she graduated cum laude, y'all okay. This is, this is a brilliant young woman that we're speaking to right now. And I'm just so proud to know her and have her on the show. You know, you have accomplished so much, but one of those things is like, as we, Erica, and I always say like engineering, studying engineering just teaches you how to be a problem solver in every way. Like all day, and sometimes it's exhausting. Cause you go, okay, like I don't want to solve problems right now, but it's like, it's what you're trained to constantly do all the time. And there's no doubt that all of the things that you mentioned in possibilities, and you're going to learn about even more possibilities with the knowledge base you already have, you're like, wow, it's so interesting.

We go to college, and we choose a degree. We're kind of boxed into like, oh, certain jobs that can be done with that degree. And we have no idea, the vast amount of opportunities in the world, you know, cause we're an increasingly global society that there is. You know, for use for our degree for maximum impact.

The fact that you're 23 right now and life is long. All of those things you mentioned are all possibilities that you'll do at different points in your life. I'm just excited for you from looking at you. I'm just. You know what? You are an example of when I dream, I'd be like, wow, if I could do it all over again. Well, what are some things that I wish I knew? And it's one of the foundations of BWISE and why Erica does what she does and why you're going to make an incredible impact on the organization and within our society. But yeah, I look at you, and I'm like, yup—all of those things. I wish I knew. I wish I knew. So right now, you've just come on staff. You're just now coming up to speed and, you know, seeing some of the vision that that is for BWISE. Is there anything in particular that you want to make sure you accomplish before you go to medical school? 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Yeah. I mean, I, I mentioned earlier how I am BWISE chief of staff, but also inaugural fellow. And one of the biggest things that I want to work on is to build out this fellowship, to provide the opportunity that I'm getting with Erica Jefferson to other black women because, quite frankly, the obstacles that we face and that I faced they're pervasive, and they are systemic and institutionalized. And while on one hand, you know, I'm working to help change that. We cannot lose on black women in STEM, namely black women in medicine. And we can afford to do that with the current state of healthcare, especially for black women and for black people in our country. So ultimately to build out this fellowship and, you know, specifically have an event that is able to connect people like me to women who are in medicine, in academic medicine, women who have found careers as entrepreneurs and outside of academic medicine, women who are in research, women who are in innovation to show people like myself, hey, look, here are all these women who have done it, let us learn from their own experiences and try our best to not have those same experiences while we're navigating this system. I ultimately want to create this fellowship and create programming that helps promote wholeness in trainees so that when we enter into our programs, we know that okay, today allowed might be hard. Okay. This medical school class is like really hard, it's challenging, but we have this community of black women who have been in our shoes to fall back on to rely on. So that's like what I'm hoping to do.

We have already begun to raise funds for this fellowship, and, you know, my goal will be to help raise more of those funds to support more fellows. Once I go to medical school, and we are currently working on an event that could hopefully help us connect black women leaders In this space together so that they can learn about each other, but then also so that people like me and my own peers can learn about them and learn from them because black women in STEM have been doing. Since the 1800s, like even in the midst of all the racism and oppression and misogyny that has happened in our society. And it's been so eye-opening for me when thinking about planning these events, like learning about these women, because even myself as a black woman in engineering for, I guess at least ten years now, I don't know all of these names. So just like knowing that like women have been able to accomplish these things is a really big thing that will be impactful for my generation and also for people like your daughter. So that's ultimately what my goal is as this inaugural fellowship of BWISE and as chief of staff, but also it's only been three weeks. Yeah. And Eric and I are big thinkers. We like to be strategic. So perhaps I'll have some more goals once we start the new year. But for now, this is my main goal. 



Host - Monique Mills:

That's incredible. Yeah. My daughter wants to go to medical school as well, so-


 Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

That's perfect. 


Host - Monique Mills:

That's the thing is like who you are now is who we used to be like me and Erica used to be. Right? And so the engineering schools, the way the workplace is and how it is the experience, you know, for, for black women is, you know, it needs some changes, but while we're getting there, we need to support each other on navigating. 


 Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Exactly. 


Host - Monique Mills:

That's where we're at now. Now I can't glaze over this part. You mean to tell me you met Michelle Obama. How was that? I can’t glaze over that. 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

It was such a wonderful event. I believe this United State of Women was the first one that she hosted, and it was so great to like hear from her and to just meet wonderful, wonderful, like trailblazers in the, just in the world. It wasn't only just, um, scientists and researchers and engineers, but just trailblazers in our society. And you know, when I attended the United State of Women, recently I had come back from another trip to DC that I took to actually attend the White House Science Fair, where I was able to meet Michelle Obama's husband, President Barack Obama, and present my research in the Red Room in the White House. I'll never forget that, because I remember wearing like a light pink suit and I just felt like I matched so well, with the setting of the room and I met some really cool people like Bill Nye The Science Guy.


Host - Monique Mills:

Oh I love Bill Nye. 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

And also Adam Savage. As well as the Obama's of course. So, yeah, it was just really great being in the space and being recognized for my research and, and quite frankly, you know, I talked about the mentorship that I received and like how everything kind of came full circle at that moment. But yeah, like I, of course, I'm an intelligent person. I have liked this scientific potential, and these moments represented the beauty of having people who can help me tap into that potential. And not only like barely accomplish things, but like accomplish really, really, really, really big things. 


Host - Monique Mills:

That’s right, blow the roof off. That's right. 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

So, yeah, it was, it was, it was a great moment to be in the White House, especially like meeting and interfacing with Michelle Obama. And of course, Barack Obama and to just share my research more widely with people and ultimately be an inspiration for other budding scientists, especially those who look like me. 


Host - Monique Mills:

You're doing a great job at that. And that is awesome. You deserve all of the love, respect, and admiration that you are getting and recognition.  And so you have already, you don't even realize that you have already dedicated your life and had an impact on the world already. So I just look forward to everything that you're going to accomplish. And of course, you know, if there is ever anything that I can do, Erica can do, right? So we're down, we're down for the mission. Right? And so I just want to let you know that, and you know, we're a circle of support. We're getting older, right? You guys will be carrying that torch. So Augusta want to thank you so much for sharing your story with us today on the Unpolished MBA. And I want to just wish you the best in your future. And in your goals and impacting the world. 


Guest - Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

 Thank you. Thank you so much. 


Host - Monique Mills:

You're welcome.


Thank you for listening to the Unpolished MBA podcast to hear more episodes or to request to become a guest please visit unpolishedmba.com. 
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