A Sole for Science

Posted April 20, 2020, 2:09PM
Photos by Vernon Samuels

By day, NCCU doctoral student Kala Nwachukwu researches the neuroimmune system within the brain and how it responds to binge-like consumption of alcohol in the Mary M. Townes Science Complex in the laboratory of Dr. Alex S. Marshall, assistant professor in Biological and Biomedical Sciences.  

After hours, she nurtures a passion for her pursuit of finding rare, limited-edition sneakers or working on details for her next Kick Back Sneaker Expo, which she founded five years ago. 

Nwachukwu, a second-year student in NCCU’s integrated biosciences program, has been equally fascinated with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and sneakers since grade school. 

“I remember doing math workbooks in the third grade — they were always fun for me,” Nwachukwu said. “I’ve always enjoyed discovering the unknown. What’s so captivating about science is that you still have so much more to learn.” 

The Upper Marlboro, Md., native entered NCCU her sophomore year, after a year at Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte on a full-ride basketball scholarship. She wasn’t the first Eagle in her family: her older sister, Jori, played basketball on the CIAA-winning Eagles women’s basketball team and graduated in 2011.  

As a biology major, Nwachukwu met Dr. Antonio Baines, associate professor in the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, who took her under his wing. 

She completed a genome science-based internship at Duke University in 2010 before being selected as an Amgen Fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine the following year. 

“At Stanford, I first saw and did work on neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases,” she said. “When I later learned that Dr. Marshall was doing similar work at NCCU, I knew I wanted to get back in that type of lab when I started my Ph.D. program.” 

After her bachelor’s degree, Nwachukwu earned a Master of Science degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in cell and molecular physiology. She then taught science for two years at Reedy Creek and Neal middle schools in Durham. 

“The scores on the science exams for students in her classes went up,” explains her aunt, Kimberly Phifer-McGhee, who is director of Distance Education at NCCU. 

But seeing only a few African Americans in staff meetings, internships, and classrooms, Nwachukwu felt drawn to pursue her Ph.D. 

“We have to see more of us,” she added.


Best Science Nerd Moment?

Kayla NCCU Now 2"In one of my internships, we had the opportunity to meet the people who provided their samples for the research we were conducting. When you are doing bench’ science, you may forget about how it will impact society. At that moment, I put two and two together and  I realized how I am contributing to science and that what I am doing is serving a purpose. It was my aha’ moment."

Sneakerhead Defined

Kyla reading with sneakers

Alongside these academic accomplishments, Nwachukwu has nurtured her other passion: sneakers. She is what is known in popular culture as a “sneakerhead.”  

According to the Urban Dictionary, a sneakerhead is: “One who is in love with but not limited to Jordans, Forces, Dunks, Maxes, etc. Willing to camp out and face lines that wind around blocks for a pair of once in a lifetime exclusives!”  

Nwachukwu said her fascination with sneakers also began when she was young. 

“My grandad really liked the Nelly song Air Force Ones,’” she fondly recalled. 

The refrain of the hip-hop classic, which debuted in 2002 and peaked at No. 3, notes, “Give me two pairs, (cause) I need two pairs, so I can get to stomping in my Air Force Ones.”  

Then, Nwachukwu’s grandfather took her shopping. “He took me to Foot Locker and said: ‘No, you’ve got to get two pairs. That’s what it said in the song!’”  

Further incentivized by getting new sneakers from her grandfather as a reward for good grades, her collection grew. 

“At one point, I was getting so many A’s that he couldn’t keep up,” she added. “Once I was able to finance my habit, I started buying a ridiculous amount of sneakers.” 

She learned the value of her collection in 2008 when she put 10 pairs up for sale on eBay and earned more than the original purchase price. She once had as many as 500 sets of sneakers but has since reduced her collection somewhat, Nwachukwu said. In fact, she still keeps a room in her home “dedicated to sneakers and sneaker art.” 

Being a sneakerhead means being part of a special community, she explained 

“There is a strong connection between sneakerheads,” she said. “It’s the rarity of things — some sneakers are numbered,  and everyone wants to get their hands on limited collections.” 

That passion is shared each year at the Kick Back Sneaker Expo she founded. It was modeled on Washington D.C.’s legendary Sneaker Con that draws 10,000 people annually. Celebrating its fifth anniversary in 2019, the Expo drew 700 fans and 50 vendors, up from 60 attendees and 15 vendors at the first event. 

“It brings a community together for the sole purpose of connecting about sneakers,” said Nwachukwu.  

When not in the lab or planning her next Kick Back Expo, Nwachukwu coaches Carolina Dream, a girl’s AAU basketball team led by NCCU alumnus, artist-in-residence and fellow sneakerhead Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit and Nike. 

Nwachukwu and Douthit were on a panel at NC State University in September 2019 titled, “Sneakerheads: The Intersection of Hip-Hop, Heritage and Hypebeast.” 

What’s next for this busy scientific sneakerhead? “My goal is to go to medical school.”

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