When he left Cameroon several years ago, determined to help make a make a dent in the burden of infectious disease, Christophe Tchakoute thought the best strategy was to pursue a career in immunology. But he soon discovered life in the lab wasn’t for him.
Now, after earning a master’s of public health from Columbia University and working at the World Health Organization, Tchakoute is a graduate student in epidemiology and clinical research at Stanford. I spoke with him to learn more.
How did you first become interested in health?
I’m originally from Cameroon, [and] growing up, I used to see a lot of people with infectious disease. Then my nanny contracted HIV when I was 9. So I decided that I wanted to find a way to address that problem.
What inspired you to switch from immunology to epidemiology?
Spending hours in the lab was good, but I wasn’t really getting to the people that need to get the medication that was being made in the lab. I realized that I could come up with the best vaccine for all these diseases, but if the vaccine cannot be tested in real-life conditions, my work is kind of pointless. I realized that every single population is different and we need methods to address the different issues of every population.
What is the biggest challenge in your field right now?
There are so many challenges… How do you make sure that the someone not in your field understands what you’re doing? We do all this great research to try to improve population health, but how do we make sure that all the research that we’re doing actually gets to the people? … And when you read the New York Times or Wall Street Journal articles and how they interpret research findings, sometimes they make a lot of mistakes.
What is most fulfilling about your work?
In New York City, I was collecting data in the hospital, and I was also involved with recruiting patients into different studies. What was fulfilling was having the opportunity to meet some of the people who were involved in my research, so all those different patient numbers were not just patient numbers, they were actually real people… [and] knowing that the work that I’m doing has the potential to help them… I know that what I’m doing might not necessarily change the world, but I feel like I am contributing a very small piece to the puzzle.
How do you unwind?
I work out. I love the night. The night’s my favorite time — I’m more productive at night, but also when I’m done with my work, I love finding new songs on Spotify. At nighttime I try to find new playlists and new music. Music is probably one of the most important things in my life. I can’t live without it.
What have you been listening to lately?
There’s this song called “Closer” by Goapele, and it’s my favorite song ever. When I hear the song, everything else stops. Nothing else really matters when I hear that song. I could be sad, and the song plays, and I just have this feeling that everything’s going to be OK.
Do you have a role model?
I have three role models. First of all is my mom. I was raised by a single mom… and I try to be as smart, hardworking, strong, and resilient as she is.
My second role model all my close friends laugh about — Jay-Z the rapper… I like Jay-Z because all his music is really about understanding how you should make choices right now in this moment.
And my third role model is LeBron James. It’s not just because he’s a wonderful basketball player — but because when he came into the league at age 18 and had all the hype in the world, he delivered and brought the title to his hometown in Cleveland. My goal in life is to somehow do something as meaningful for my home state in Cameroon.
Do you plan on going back to Cameroon?
Yes. You never know what life will bring to you. But the ultimate goal in my mind is to give back… I’m from such a poor neighborhood in Cameroon. Where I’m from people don’t even know about Columbia and Stanford. I get here and I see all these wonderful resources and facilities, but where I’m from people don’t even dream about it. People are trying to survive. I’m very blessed and very privileged to be in the position that I’m in. I don’t feel guilty for having what I have, or for having these opportunities, but I feel like it’s my duty to give back and to make sure that there are more people like me who get these opportunities.
Stars of Stanford Medicine is a series introducing readers to standout scholars in the School of Medicine.
Previously: Stars of Stanford Medicine: In love with the microbiome, Stars of Stanford Medicine: “Are people getting the right care?” and Stars of Stanford Medicine: Working to end global health disparities
Photo by Alyssa Tamboura