When Ida Owens entered college, she never guessed she would become a trailblazer in the field of biochemistry.
The Graduate School Board of Visitors invited Owens, Graduate School ’67, to speak Friday at a gathering of graduate students, alumni and administrators, to honor the 50th anniversary of integration at Duke. In a speech during dinner, Owens, the first black student to receive a Ph.D from Duke, outlined her research and how her experience at the University shaped her future.
“I started out in one of the most unremarkable school systems in the state and wound up in the most remarkable position,” Owens said of her life. “I’ve achieved more than I ever expected to achieve.”
After Owens graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina College at Durham—now known as North Carolina Central University—Duke administrators encouraged Owens to apply to the Ph.D. program in biochemistry in the Graduate School. In addition to being the first black to receive a Ph.D from Duke, Owens was also the first woman to earn a doctorate in biochemistry and physiology.
At Duke, Owens spent most of her time working in a lab located inside Duke Hospital and had little interaction with campus culture.
“There was nothing wrong with my experience at Duke,” she explained.
Prior to her matriculation, Owens spent her time taking supplementary courses at NCCU to prepare herself for the opportunity of graduate school. She stayed informed of developments in the scientific community by reading academic journals, which prevented others from doubting her capabilities. Owens was so focused on her lab work that she missed the news that Duke decided to admit black undergraduate students in 1963.
But this lab work would create new insights in the study of the genetics of human diseases.
Her research led her to discover a family of 13 enzymes which could metabolize a high number of chemicals due to their rotating active sites. This discovery would have many implications for the study of the genetics of human diseases. At the time, Owens was unaware of how applicable her findings would be to the field. She continues her work with enzymes today as the head of the Section on Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism in the Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. One of the enzymes that she found metabolized dihydrotestosterone, high levels of which can increase the probability of developing prostate cancer.
“We started at A, and now we’ve passed Z,” she said.
Her work on the genetics and mechanisms controlling enzyme systems has been published in a variety of major scientific journals. Owens is also a member of numerous leading scientific societies and has spoken at 15 scientific conferences around the world.
Owen’s enduring passion for her work came across to everyone in the audience.
“She has had an incredible career, and she’s still got the drive to work on her experiment,” Paula McClain, dean of the Graduate School, said. “She really wants to see this last experiment through because whatever she finds is going to help us in the treatment of prostate cancer.”
Desmond Moore, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in biochemistry, said he was moved by the story of Owens’s success.
“The fact that she’s still involved in research and still chasing her dreams was just really inspiring,” he said.