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“Science saved my life”

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Published on 30 January 2020

Carl Onwochei
Carl Onwochei

Before joining our University in 2016 on a Biomedical Science degree, Carl Onwochei had endured five years of illness with an autoimmune disease, the pain of which placed a huge strain on his physical and mental health.

He was just 19 when he fell ill and training to become a nurse at university in Leeds. Despite struggling to complete his studies, the pain became unbearable and in 2011, Carl attempted to end his suffering, thankfully friends came to his rescue.

This was a wake-up call for the 32-year-old, from Middlesbrough, and he decided that things had to change. He got the help he needed and returned to university.

With a passion for science, he signed up for the University of Sunderland’s Biomedical Science degree. Three years later and graduating with a First Class degree, he says his life has been transformed thanks to the support on offer at the university.

“It took me five years before I felt brave enough to get back on the horse, but slowly I became more of the hungry person I was before. Once I’d joined Sunderland, my passion for science came back and with the support of some amazing lecturers, I achieved First Class Honours. This immediately led to my first job working in a chemistry lab. Science literally saved my life and I will be forever grateful to Sunderland for all the support.”

Carl began working for Wales-based Severn Trent Water in environmental science as a water quality analyst in the inorganic team. He’s also found the confidence to improve his skills further by completing a Master’s degree through Distance Learning in environmental toxicology.

But it was during his degree that he discovered what it meant to truly feel happy and pain free again.

“I embraced lots of opportunity during my program, I became a mentor, as the prospect of supporting students really appealed to me, I also became a content writer for the university, to develop myself and improve my employment skills.”

Carl even unleashed another hidden talent when he performed as drag queen 'Carla Jackson' several nights a week in the local club circuit. The role helped with funding his degree, which he described as a complete separation from the immersive world of science, as well as bringing back the fun in his life.

Carl now has much to be proud as he’s the first person in his family to go to University, having come from a traditional working-class background.

He said: “My dad is a skilled engineer and my mum is a housewife, and they’ve been incredibly supportive throughout my journey. They are so proud of what I’ve achieved. I now have a great support network through my family and friends. It’s important to reach out if you’re in the place like I once was.”

So what advice does Carl offer to students just beginning their own journey at Sunderland?

“Be prepared to thrown yourself into it,” he says. “You get out of university what you put in. If you’re not invested then you won’t do well.

“Remember there is also so much support out there at Sunderland, I would recommend the university to anyone. It was the best decision I ever made.”

Dr Noel Carter, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Programme lead for Biomedical Science, described Carl as a “fantastic” student and “a pleasure to teach”.

“He was engaged with the course and he clearly enjoys his science,” added Dr Carter. “Carl did his final year project with me and at first was a bit nervous in the lab doing some new research, but he flourished and I think it rekindled his love for working in a laboratory.

“During his time he acted as a student mentor and he wrote a science blog which was excellent. It was great to see his hard work be rewarded with a First Class degree.”

Click here to find out more information about the Biomedical Science programme.