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Dr. Onyinye Iweala is an assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology, allergy and immunology. She specializes in environmental allergies (allergic rhinitis), chronic hives and swelling (urticaria and angioedema), food allergies (including alpha-gal allergy), and anaphylaxis.

onyi-iwealaWhat brought you to UNC Medical Center?

My allergy and immunology fellowship brought me to UNC.  I moved to North Carolina in 2013 when my husband got a job with Duke Neurology.  I worked as a general internist and hospitalist at the Durham VA Medical Center and Duke Regional Hospital for a couple of years before I had the good fortune to match at the UNC School of Medicine / UNC Medical Center for my allergy/immunology fellowship.

Where are you from?

I am from Durham, NC, and Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria.  I was born in the UK to Nigerian parents, moved to the US when I  was 11 months old, and grew up in the Washington, DC, area (in Montgomery County, Maryland), before moving to the Boston area for college, medical school, graduate school and residency. I left Boston for Durham in 2013.

Did you always want to be a doctor?

I was very lucky to have highly educated parents as great examples.  My dad is a physician and my mom had a PhD in economics. I actually wanted to emulate my mom and get a PhD.  I had wanted a PhD since the 6th grade (although I wasn’t sure in exactly what). It was only after my 9th grade introductory biology class where I fell in love with carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids, that I decided biology and medicine were the fields for me.

How did you choose your specialty?

Ever since my junior year in college, when I took my first immunology course, I have loved immunology.  That’s how I ended up getting a doctorate degree in mucosal immunology.  When I was trying to decide on a specialty, I wanted to pick one that would allow me continued exposure to immunology clinically, and in the lab.  I was torn for a while, early during my residency, trying to decide between gastroenterology, pulmonology, and hematology/oncology, all of which involved some immunology.  But then, during my intern year and again during my senior year of medicine residency, I had the opportunity to rotate through the allergy/immunology clinic, and I LOVED it.  I loved the problems being addressed.  I liked the patients that came through clinic.  I found that I could get a taste of gastroenterology, pulmonology, and hematology/oncology in this one specialty. I was hooked.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

I love validating patients by giving them explanations for why they feel the symptoms that they feel.  I love being able to bring basic biology into a lot of the discussions that I have with patients who come in concerned about allergies and seeing the understanding light up in their faces.  I also enjoy learning about the different ways patients cope with and manage their allergic diseases. I almost always find a successful tidbit from one patient’s experience that I can suggest that another patient try.

What are some of the new developments in your field of specialty?

There has been an explosion in the use of biologic medicines to treat allergic diseases like asthma, urticaria, and atopic dermatitis, as well as autoinflammatory components of primary immune deficiencies. Other developments include the highly anticipated release of FDA-approved treatments for food allergies, in particular, peanut allergy, and the discovery of alpha-gal red meat /mammalian meat allergy, which is challenging our current understanding of how people develop food allergies and how food allergies resolve.

Is there a particular achievement (professional or personal) that has been most gratifying to you?

Professionally, it was most gratifying to receive my PhD in experimental pathology / mucosal immunology. Personally, a tie between completing 60 days of Insanity workouts with Shaun T and being able to give birth to my three kids has been the most gratifying to me.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“One by one gets it done.”  — Andrew Spector (my husband).

If you weren’t a physician, what would you like to be doing?

I would be singing in an a capella group.

What hobbies do you enjoy?

I enjoy singing, especially in church choir, and I used to be in an a capella group in graduate school. I like dancing at parties and I enjoy exercising, especially insanity workouts with Shaun T.

Do you have a favorite quote or life motto?

“Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll still be among the stars.”

What was the last book you read?

My last books were Becoming, by Michelle Obama, and Educated, by Tara Westover.

Learn more about Dr. Iweala here.