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Emory Law News Center


With juris master degree, Emory MD turns mind to policy work

Jasmine Reese |

Olubunmi Bakare’s path to become a leading neonatologist included immigration to the United States and tenacious pursuit of both MD and master of public health degrees from elite schools. This spring, Bakare 23L earned a juris masterdegree at Emory Law. She views it as a tool to cut through bureaucratic hurdles that can obstruct her goal of working in neonatal and child health in developing countries. 

Bakare believes her path was divinely guided. A native of Nigeria, she studied physiology and neurobiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, while also navigating a new country, state, university, and reality.  

“I found the classrooms overwhelming, with crowded lecture halls. It was a complete shock, as I had never left home alone [Nigeria], and I struggled,” she said. 

She transferred to the University of Maryland at Baltimore to complete the last two years of her undergraduate studies. It offered a medical technology program where she excelled. It seemed like a perfect path to medical school. 

“It was a great experience because I got to be in smaller classrooms, make great friends, and most importantly, be on the medical campus.” Bakare finished her bachelor’s degree at UMB and then worked in biotech. She decided to return to her dream of becoming a physician, but her transcript revealed her UMB degree was “skill-based,” not the “knowledge based” degree she needed to apply for medical school.   

First, she was daunted, then she persisted. She re-enrolled at UMCP to complete the degree she had started there. Then she attended medical school at Boston University, where she immersed herself in global health. 

“I started medical school with the idea to give back to where I came from. I would have these dreams of working as a pediatrician and working with children; but as a young medical student, I didn’t quite know what the route would be.” As president of Physicians for Humans Rights in medical school, she helped organize one of the first HIV awareness events at BU’s medical school.  

When she turned 40, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, which explained some of her academic struggle. 

“The reason these stories are important is because when other people see where you get to, they may wonder or may think that it is not challenging along the way. That it was so easy. It wasn’t,” she said. 

While she worked hard to earn degrees at highly competitive institutions, she looks back and sees how ADD affected her progress as well as made her an excellent multitasker.  

“There was limited awareness of the diagnosis back then for ADD, as well medication recommendations. I didn’t know I had it. I just knew I couldn’t settle down and focus on one thing.” While in medical school, she applied to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and earned a dual degree: an MD from Boston University and her MPH from Harvard School of Public Health. 

After completing her residency at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County she was unsure about her next step. Then she fell in love with the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Again, she followed her instincts. While completing a neurology rotation in Australia, she found herself constantly thinking and talking about the NICU, so the next rung on her climb was a fellowship at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. By now, she knew neonatology was her niche, but wanted to focus on developing countries. 

After her fellowship, she joined Emory University School of Medicine. She says Emory was both a strategic and divine choice that aligned with her interest in pediatric global health. Emory’s relationship and proximity to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the School of Public Health, and the Emory Global Health Institute affirmed her choice. 

“This was a chance to find my people, global health people. This is why I came here,” she said. 

Bakare created “Keeping Babies Alive,” a project that uses the Centers for Disease Control’s BABIES Matrix to interpret mortality based on birthweight at the time of neonatal death. That data can be used to inform government policymakers on what programs could save young lives.  

Bakare says her sometimes difficult path is now an advantage. “Being African and having lived in the US for almost thirty years, I feel like I am in a strategic position to bridge both worlds. And that was, being able to help those in global health understand that the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are unique, with different cultures, different languages, and different problems. Neonatal mortality is not a one-size-fits-all.” 

Working with her mentor Alfred Brann MD, and having the full support of Neonatology Chief David Carlton MD, Bakare traveled to Nigeria to collect data on infant mortality at a tertiary hospital that yielded only a small sample of the data she needed to show its larger impact across the country. The issues she faced ranged from navigating bureaucracy to negotiating with government officials to get access to regional, state-governed hospitals. 

“I just did not have the know-how to do that. I did not understand how to navigate policy or those levels of governmental organization. I felt I really needed lawyering skills to best serve me. That is how I ended up int the JM program at Emory Law.”  

The Mission

Bakare is passionate to continue work she started with “Keeping Babies Alive” and won’t allow anything to stop her. 

The JM concentration in Health Care Law, Policy, and Regulation allowed her to tailor her class choices: Global Health Law, International Law, Advanced International Negotiation, and International Human Rights and Child Protective Rights. Bakare plans to use her legal knowledge to step into the landscape of both domestic and international health care policy.  

“Even though I have been a doctor and taking care of patients for 15 years—and I do love it—I find myself now leaning towards wanting to be more engaged in policy-type work,” she said. 

After a career on the Emory Medical School faculty, Bakare is currently working at John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. She found happiness in being a mother, a student, and physician.  

Bakare is also proud to be chair of the African American Women’s Collaborative at Emory School of Medicine, a group of 136 Black women who are Emory medical school faculty, founded by Dr. Wendy Greene with the support of Dr. Sheryl Heron. Given the small percentage of Black women in medicine, the group works to combat some of the stigmas and hardships faced by Black women physicians. 

“In my situation, I think my purpose and my career are in alignment. Sometimes I have to remind myself of how far I’ve come,” she said. “Everything I have done has been with one purpose in mind, and if you look at my trajectory it’s been with the same purpose: How do we save babies in low-income countries? No babies should have to die because of where they were born or who their parents are.”