By Giannina Ong
After graduating from Georgetown University in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in linguistics, Catherine Nnoka never pursued an advanced degree. Instead, she dove straight into the Washington, D.C., workforce beginning in the education sector and making the leap to food safety and nutrition. The lack of doctorate notwithstanding, she gained the nickname “Dr. Nnoka.”
“Everyone in the office would call me ‘Dr. Nnoka,’ because they could ask me anything, and I would know the answer,” said Nnoka. “I read scientific and medical literature for work and for fun. It became so much a part of my life. Although I didn’t go to medical school, I still acquired a great deal of medical information just by being curious, using the tools and resources available, integrating it into my thinking and everyday life. Good memory, that helps too.”
Her comfort and ease around scientific research fields were not always the case. Nnoka shared that she was apprehensive about joining the International Life Sciences Institute. Coming off a linguistics major and a stint in the education sector, this was her first taste of food safety science. When approached with the opportunity to become their associate director and project manager, she told herself, “I will give it a year. I wasn’t sure about it, since I didn’t know anything about food microbiology.”
Nnoka notes that critical thinking, a quality inherent to study in the liberal arts and sciences, was fundamental to her ability to take on not only the position at the International Life Sciences Institute but also the various positions she has held over the decades.
“There is absolutely a need for what you get from a liberal arts education: the ability to think through information and process it. It really ups your game. In life and in many humanities and sciences disciplines, there is no such thing as multiple choice or standardized tests. You have to think. It teaches you how to learn. It is so important to know how to learn. That will stick with you your entire life,” Nnoka said. “I’ve always valued education. But it was never today’s specialized education—it was broad-picture learning. We need doctors, architects, accountants, and lawyers, but we need them to love to learn and know how to learn, and not just practice in their field.”
Recalling her upbringing, Nnoka highlights learning as central to her life. At the age of eleven, she relocated from Nigeria to the United States. Her mother, an American citizen, was returning after being in Nigeria since 1954. Having worked in the Calabar River region teaching women hygiene and basic literacy skills, her mother came home to chair the African studies department at an upstate campus of the State University of New York. For Nnoka, being in America in 1968—the height of the youth movement and a turning point for cultural change—was invigorating and exciting. Moreover, it was a time celebrating education and inclusion.
“My mother believed that education was the one thing that turned the world around. Being half Nigerian and born and bred there, I come from a country and culture that puts a huge emphasis on education. Nigerians are the most educated minority in the United States,” said Nnoka.
With Nigeria being first a British colony and then a British commonwealth country in the mid 20th century, the British school Nnoka attended in Nigeria was academically demanding, despite the half-day format instituted due to the brutal African afternoon heat. After transferring, Nnoka recalled being so bored in American schools that she “couldn’t see straight” by the end of the day. Instead of completing her senior year of high school, she joined an early college program at Simon’s Rock and completed her freshman college courses. It was there that she fell in love with linguistics.
As an undergraduate, Nnoka sought to pursue linguistics as a science and become a language pathologist. Because linguistics is often considered purely a liberal arts discipline, Georgetown was one of only two universities that Nnoka was able to find a bachelor of science program where she could study language pathology, the troubleshooting of communication and the production of language. Nonetheless, she recognized that every linguistics major is actually a double major since they also declare a language concentration and, thus, have one foot in the arts and one in the sciences. Because she chose French, Nnoka spent two years studying abroad in France at the University of Nice and returned to Georgetown to finish her senior year and graduate.
“We did both the arts and sciences. The thing about linguistics as a science—which worries me about the technical STEM fields you find today—is that even if you studied it as a science, it was a very broad field,” Nnoka said. “We would sit there and map out languages, listen to sounds to see if you have a knack for recording unwritten languages, etc. We were able to do fabulous stuff. We had clinical sessions with patients. We got out of the classroom to teach, but you also had to ponder philosophical questions. For instance, if you don’t have a word for something in your language, does that mean that you can’t conceive of it?”
Because of the inclusive environments Nnoka was raised in—including her Quaker background and early introduction to higher education—being primarily identified for the first time as a Black woman in America was a culture shock. “Georgetown was a real eye-opener for me. Georgetown was my first exposure to the ‘outside world.’ It was a big learning curve. It was a huge transition.”
At the time, Georgetown had just made a commitment to raise minority enrollments. The basketball team hired John Thompson Jr. as their head coach. After Nnoka graduated, Thompson became the first African-American coach to lead a men’s basketball team to win the NCAA national championship in 1984.
“Most of the athletes on the team were Black, and I hung out with them because the Black students spent a lot of time with each other. However, I was isolated in some ways because I wasn’t Black in the American sense,” Nnoka said, “I am a Black African. I am from Nigeria. My brother and I got into cars on the wrong side of the road. We had British accents. All the books we read were from England and used British English. My friends were similarly international, but in the United States, we all lived and were labelled as African-Americans despite the fact that we all had differences in our backgrounds. I wasn’t born here, but my mother was white, so there was that added complication.”
Nnoka notes that her induction into Phi Beta Kappa is not the singular time she was the only person of color in the room: “I’ve been the only Black person in so many meetings and board rooms. When I went to work at International Life Sciences, I walked into my first professional staff meeting, and I was the only Black person there. I got so pissed at the hiring manager. I told him, ‘If I had known this was the case, I would not have taken the job.’ And he said, ‘I know, and that’s why I didn’t tell you.’ It is too easy to develop a culture where people continue to hire those who are just like them. I’ve always tried to influence things wherever I could.” As far as Phi Beta Kappa is aware, Nnoka is the first Black woman to be elected to the Society’s Georgetown chapter, receiving her bachelor’s with magna cum laude honors.
After graduating, Nnoka did think about pursuing an advanced degree. Despite being on track to become a language pathologist, she realized the profession was not for her. “You need a certain temperament to work as that kind of therapist,” she said. “You could work hours, hundreds of hours, with someone who suffered a stroke, and you’ll maybe get only a couple of new words. I, at that age, simply didn’t have the patience for that.”
Instead, Nnoka found the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and, eventually, the International Council on Education for Teaching to be a natural fit with her beliefs regarding the value of education. As part of the later role, she organized and ran education tours of developing nations. Through that work, Nnoka travelled and accompanied tour groups three months out of the year to places such as Israel, Egypt, and Thailand.
Despite her hesitancy, when Nnoka transitioned from the education sector to food microbiology in the 90s, she brought with her the ability to organize and manage boards, committees, and task forces. “That’s how International Life Sciences ran most of their programming as well,” she explained. “The people who hired me said, ‘Those skills are what you need to begin, and you can learn the rest. We have a bunch of outside scientific advisors, industry scientists, who do the science. They spend their whole lives understanding salmonella and all the rest of it. Just read the articles and take the time to learn. We think you will be able to do it.’”
Those encouraging words propelled a more than twenty-year career in food safety and a passion for food microbiology. Her vigor for the sector has been recognized by the International Association for Food Protection as well the Food and Drug Administration. For her commitment to food safety, the food industry, and the public, Nnoka was awarded the Harold Barnum Industry Award and a Special Citation Award from the Director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. While at the International Life Sciences Institute, Nnoka concurrently oversaw their Allergy and Immunology Institute before moving to the Institute for Food Safety and Health, a scientific research lab located outside of Chicago.
“I went from what are the pathogens present in this lettuce to how many times do we have to wash this lettuce before this pathogen load is reduced. It was fascinating,” Nnoka said. “Basic science looks down on the applied side, but it is the more practical side. The military funded a lot of studies at the Institute for Food Safety and Health on how to get food to last longer, such as in-shell eggs. There was a scientist who spent years harnessing microwaves to extend egg shelf life so that people in battlezones could have scrambled eggs in the morning made from real eggs.”
Nnoka shares an anecdote in which her linguistics background directly aided her work: “I remember going to the first few meetings at the International Life Sciences Institute in Washington, D.C., and frantically writing down the names of pathogens phonetically—Escherichia coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium botulinum—because I had no idea, aside from Salmonella Typhimurium. It was quite funny actually.”
Indirectly, her linguistics background trained her to succeed in food safety and as of late, nutrition—previously holding a position at The Alliance for Potato Research and Education and just having left her most recent post as director of operations at The Sugar Association.
“I’ve done different things, and I’ve made a path of it. I’ve really enjoyed my working career. I have to say that graduating from Georgetown University and being elected Phi Beta Kappa have been a lifesaver for me and my career my whole life. It absolutely made up for not having an advanced degree,” Nnoka said. “It made a lot of difference in how I was perceived everywhere I went throughout the years of my career, and it still does.”
Required skills for the modern day professional according to “Dr. Nnoka” include being fearless and having the ability to acquire information from a variety of sources, synthesize the information, and distill what you need for the task assigned. In a world where we are bombarded with information, her prescription of good ol’ critical thinking sounds simplistic, yet it is an integral and intrinsic part of a liberal arts education.
Giannina Ong graduated from Santa Clara University with majors in English, classics, and women's and gender studies and minors in history and public health sciences. An avid reader and conscientious writer, she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2018. She will begin her M.A. in Women's and Gender Studies at University of Toronto in September. Santa Clara is home to the Pi of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.