Suah Yekeh (SASN ‘20) is lucky to be alive.
Born in Liberia in 1995, in the middle of a civil war, she experienced trauma at a young age, suffering from bacterial disease as an infant due to poor water and soil conditions, which left her feverish and malnourished. Her doctors were unable to help her. To make matters worse, when she was 5, her father was shot in his sleep (and survived), and her older brother was later snatched off the street by one of several civil-war military groups and, miraculously, managed to escape before being forced into fighting.
Shortly after the attack on her father and looking for a way out, Yekeh’s parents pooled what little money they had and entered a Diversity Visa lottery to come to the United States. The family of seven was granted three visas. A doctor urged Yekeh’s parents to take her, their youngest at the time, seeing emigration as her only hope of survival from her prolonged childhood illness. In 2000 they did, moving to the U.S. and settling in the Bronx, where over the next three years Yekeh’s health improved. Three years later, they moved to Newark, where they raised Yekeh, along with two additional children born in the U.S., and where they remain to this day after bringing over two more of their children from Liberia.
That early trauma and triumph has stuck with Yekeh, guiding her life and career.
“Because of the knowledge of my survival and being a first-generation Liberian woman, education was ingrained in me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to pursue a career that would help improve the soil and water resources in urban areas to decrease toxic metals, viruses and bacteria that affects children and adults. My goal has always been to create a healthy future and safe environment for the next generation.”
The first in her family to attend college, Yekeh is well on her way toward that goal, graduating Rutgers University–Newark in spring 2020 with a B.S. in Geoscience and Environmental Science, and now a year into a RU-N doctoral program in Aqueous Geochemistry—both degrees part of the Department of Earth & Environmental Science (EES).
Yekeh’s path to RU-N, however, was nothing if not circuitous.
After graduating University High School in Newark, she enrolled at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) but lacked both the confidence and advising she needed to succeed, and left after three years without a degree. In 2017 she tried Essex Community College and met a female chemistry professor who proved pivotal, bringing Yekeh into her lab to do research and encouraging her to apply for an eight-week summer program run by Professor Alec Gates at RU-N—funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)—which offers undergraduates hands-on research experience in urban environmental systems and sustainability.
At the end of the day, I need to pay it forward, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the mentors I’ve had.
Lacking confidence from her earlier experiences and suffering from imposter syndrome as a Black woman in the sciences, Yekeh dragged her feet before finally applying at the last minute, and was accepted. The research experience changed her life, as did meeting Gates, who advised her about sub-disciplines in the field, along with career options, and connected those options to Yekeh’s interests, something no one had done before.
By the end of the summer 2018 program, Gates convinced her to apply to RU-N, and that fall, Yekeh transferred into EES on an Urban Student Scholarship given to community college students by the Garden State–Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (GS-LSAMP), a national NSF-funded program that aims to increase representation of undergraduate students of color in STEM fields, the New Jersey chapter of which Gates founded and leads.
Once at RU-N, Yekeh focused on course work and was active on campus, becoming Vice President of the Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists Student Chapter (AEG), and a paid GS-LSAMP Student Ambassador, supervising a team of six undergraduates who recruited minority students into STEM studies on campus.
In summer 2019, Yekeh did an internship at the University of New Hampshire, coring the Great Bay Estuary and analyzing the mercury and methane concentrations there, and later presented her research to the annual GS-LSAMP research conference, where she won a Best Poster award.
“The internship taught me how stream flow, seasons and time can affect the flow and amount of contaminants present,” said Yekeh, “and it deepened my understanding of soil science.”
That same summer, Yekeh also put in time as Geology Teaching Assistant for the Educational Opportunity Fund program, and worked as a Teaching Assistant for Gates’ summer high-school intensive STEM program, where she helped nearly 70 Newark teens learn about rock formations, soil layers, contaminant levels, pH levels in soil and water, and field-work techniques.
That kind of mentoring comes naturally for Yekeh, who helped fellow RU-N students every chance she got, especially female students of color navigating STEM studies.
In 2020 Yekeh received a Bridges to Doctorate scholarship to begin her Ph.D. studies that fall. Outside of classes, she spends most of her time as a Graduate Research Assistant in the lab of EES Professor Ashaki Rouff, conducting research on toxic metals in the soils in Newark’s parks and playgrounds.
Yekeh’s future looks bright. She’s focused on building a career as a research scientist and professor, and would like to get industry experience as well. Gates has been introducing his doctoral students to people in academia and industry to help them gauge their options.
Yekeh is also intent on giving back to the community.
"I plan to continue helping men, women, minorities and low-income students become more aware and integrated into STEM fields,” said Yekeh. “At the end of the day, I need to pay it forward, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the mentors I’ve had.”