Creating Life’s Canvas through MURALS

Walk with a group of Rams through Ohio State University’s main green, and you may hear comments about the beautiful trees and serene pathways, but how it’s just not the same as the Oval. Like for College of Health and Human Sciences alum and OSU M.D. candidate Ona Kola-Kehinde (B.S., ’17), feelings about CSU’s special magic will inevitably be strong.

Ona Kola-Kehinde
Ona Kola-Kehinde is making an impact with medical research at Ohio State University.

Although favoritism toward CSU’s campus is natural, OSU’s College of Medicine is one of the highest ranked in the country and was a natural choice for Kola-Kehinde to pursue his dream of being a doctor. For more than three years, OSU has been his home base, and medical research a top focus and priority.

He recently won a very competitive grant to do cancer research for a year, and he has also investigated multiple areas including heart failure, diversity and equity within medical education, reactions to anesthesia and pain medicine, and much more.

With such a firm focus on his future, Kola-Kehinde was a little surprised to unexpectedly visit his past last year. Bridgette Johnson, his mentor at CSU and current assistant vice president for inclusive excellence, gave him a call and asked if he’d give the keynote address at CSU’s March 2022 MURALS Symposium.

“It was overwhelming, honestly,” Kola-Kehinde said. “At first, I thought she was kidding.”

MURALS, short for Multicultural Undergraduate Research Art and Leadership Symposium, provides a platform for students with marginalized identities to showcase their scholarly work in a wide variety of subjects including entrepreneurship, creative writing, S.T.E.M., humanities, and more. Graduate students and faculty provide feedback and mentorship in a rigorous and inclusive environment.

Kola-Kehinde participated in MURALS his junior year at CSU, focusing on the health benefits of physical activity in different altitudes. Although modest about the success of the presentation itself, Kola-Kehinde gives MURALS “100 percent credit” for launching his research career and helping him find connections that made a big impact on his future.

“I knew there was a correlation between research and what I needed to do to get into med school. The more research you do, the better placement you have in medical schools and residencies. It follows you your whole career, so it’s best to have a grasp of research early on. MURALS was where it all began for me.”

When he told Bridgette Johnson yes, he would come back to CSU to give the MURALS keynote address, he had a lot to think about. He would be talking to a large, engaged group absorbing his every word, sitting exactly where he sat seven years ago. What would he say?

Building New Paths

When Kola-Kehinde returned to CSU the day of his keynote address, it was almost like he never left. He enjoyed his morning at the Black African American Cultural Center, where he worked as a student and first met Bridgette Johnson. It was a joyful reunion of friends and colleagues, and he even had the chance to meet and mentor some pre-med students.

Ona Kola-Kehinde onstage at the 2022 MURALS symposium.
Ona Kola-Kehinde speaks at the 2022 MURALS symposium.

His life at CSU was incredibly active, and his family even joked with him at the time that he was doing too much. Along with MURALS, he was involved with Key Communities, United Men of Color, the GPS peer leader program, and he worked as an assistant athletics trainer for the football team. One of his biggest accomplishments was helping bring the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity back to campus.

Despite all his involvement, being a doctor was his core goal, and CSU was the perfect choice for his pre-med studies.

“I had a natural interest in sports medicine, so my major in health and exercise science was a great way to understand the human body and its concepts. Also, I just loved the environment at CSU; it seemed like the natural place to be.”

Now, home again and the hours ticking away to the time of his MURALS presentation, Kola-Kehinde felt a little nervous but was well prepared with his message. The moment came, and he stepped up to the podium.

“The main thing I emphasized to the students was to ‘know your why.’ Make sure you know the reason that you’re going into medical school – or whatever you want to do – and that it’s not superficial. There are other ways to make money. If you know in your heart and soul that there’s nothing else you can do, then you know you’re on the right path.”

As Kola-Kehinde spoke, he couldn’t help but reflect on his own “why” in pursuing medicine.

“My sister and I visited Nigeria, where we’re originally from, and she got an upper respiratory infection. The management and treatment she received there was so lackluster that she almost lost her life. When I get discouraged in my studies, I think about almost losing my sister and how I can make a difference as a doctor.”

Ona Kola-Kehinde speaks at 2022 MURALS symposium.
Ona Kola-Kehinde gives the keynote address at the 2022 MURALS symposium.

After his presentation, Kola-Kehinde spent time talking with students, looking at MURALS projects, and being there as a mentor. He called the experience “honestly so humbling to be that person that I needed for other people.”

Kola-Kehinde has led development of his own MURALS program at OSU, through which he’s presented at various medical conferences and partnered with other organizations on campus. He hopes MURALS will give underrepresented OSU students the same valuable community and experience that he received at CSU.

“MURALS is an opportunity to build community. Here are people telling you we support you and want to see you in places and spaces that otherwise would have been more challenging to enter. And you can make connections that change your life.”

Asked if he had any other words of wisdom for students navigating their futures, it didn’t take long for Kola-Kehinde to offer this nugget of insight:

“You’ll get further with a community than you would alone. Find your community, find mentorship, and then ‘find your why,’ and you’ll succeed.”