Stanford University

MVP to PhD: My Stanford journey

Energy Resources Engineering PhD candidate Usua Amanam discusses the experiences that led him to pursue research with professor Tony Kovscek.

BY Usua Amanam, as told to David Kiefer
ClockDecember 28, 2018

Our family's story begins in a mud hut. That’s where my father’s life began. His story is one of perseverance, and that is a large part of mine.

It can be overwhelming to think of the infinite number of pieces that fell into place to get where I am today: a Rose Bowl MVP on the verge of earning a Ph.D. from Stanford in energy resources engineering.

I don’t reflect often, and when I do, I tend to look forward. But in those few moments when I consider my journey, I’m humbled by those who believed in me.

Take Joe Shamie, for example. As a kid, my father was reluctant to let me play football. My godfather was paralyzed playing the game. Fortunately, my brother Idoro helped persuade my father, and when I was 9, he signed me up for the Fremont Football League. At the time, my father saw the sport as a summer activity and had little desire to let me continue when workouts turned into full-contact games.

Perhaps with some fear for my safety, he told Coach Joe that, as a single working father, he was unable to pick me up at the Harker School in west San Jose every day and get me to practice in Fremont. But Coach Joe reassured my dad that he would look out for me and protect me.

Coach Joe volunteered to pick me up from school and drive me to practice. He did this every fall day for three years, sometimes even taking me home, too, and did this for others as well. Coach Joe made a life of helping kids, treating them as if they were his own. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 73, after more than 30 years of coaching youth football.

His daughter, Lisa Gramkan, said I was, “like lightning,” even as a kid. And that once I got to the outside, other teams would give up.

Could all of this – a Stanford football career and education – have happened without Coach Joe? No … Certainly not in the way it unfolded.

Forming the foundation for all those pieces was my father, Usua Henry Amanam.

Usua and his family.
A young Usua sits next to his mother, Mary, and father, Usua Henry, during a visit with Rupiah Banda, who would become president of Zambia, and Rupia's son, Henry. (Photo courtesy of Usua Amanam)

I was born at Stanford Hospital and raised in the Bay Area – a place my family has called home for decades. Both of my parents are from Eket, in Akwa Ibom, a state in the southern coastal region of Nigeria known as the Niger Delta.

My father was born in 1949, the son of a Qua Iboe (Presbyterian) pastor. More often than not, ministry isn’t financially rewarding. The family saved what little it had with the hopes of sending one child to secondary school. After my father finished primary school, he convinced his parents to allow him to move on.

He left to live with his older brother, who was working for the federal government in Kano, a large city in the northern part of the country, to attend school. But within a few years, the country devolved into a civil war. A military coup, counter-coup, rising ethnic tensions, and Black Thursday – a 1966 massacre – led to the Biafran War that pitted the government against the secessionist state of Biafra.

With his schooling cut short, my father returned home. Unfortunately, home was in what was then known as the Eastern Region (Biafra). A government blockade eventually brought an end to the war, but not before as many as 2 million people died of starvation in the region.

All my father could do was survive. He finished secondary school in Eket and began to look for a way out.

In 1970, he was involved in a car accident in Calabar, an old port city for the slave trade. He was sent to an orthopedic clinic in Lagos Island to tend to an injured hand. While walking around after his visit, he saw a flyer for Youth For Understanding, an international exchange program. The program would enable him to come to America as an exchange student; however, the aptitude test he needed to pass was set to be administered at that same time at Bookshop House, a building not very far from the clinic. He saw this as an act of God. But by the time he arrived, it was too late. He pleaded for leniency and eventually was granted his wish. He took the exam and did well.

Again, disappointment. He provided all the necessary documents, but his visa application was rejected at the U.S. Embassy, seemingly ending his final chance to salvage an education and improve his life. However, anyone who knows my father knows he is persistent. He went to an office that housed employees from the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and, by happenstance, met the director, who then contacted the appropriate individuals and encouraged my father to return to the U.S. Embassy. This time, his visa application was accepted.

A sponsorship from Chandler Ide, a petroleum business executive in the Bay Area, and the hosting Horton family, brought him to Ohlone, a community college in Fremont. He stayed with the Wailes family, went on to graduate from Cal State Hayward and earned a master’s degree at San Jose State. He never forgot those who helped him (over 40 years later, a Wailes serves as his lawyer). He always reminds me to do the same.

I am his son. My name is Usua Utibe Usua Amanam.

Usua and his family at high school graduation.
The Amanam family at Usua's high school graduation, including brother Idoro and sister Ekeeti. (Photo courtesy of Usua Amanam)

‘Usua’ means ‘someone who despises evil things.’ ‘Utibe’ means ‘miraculous’ or ‘wonderful’ or ‘mysterious.’ But everyone in my family calls me Junior. My dad is ‘Usua H,’ or, ‘Chief,’ or “The Ikpetu.’

My father always says that my mother, Mary, was his driving force. She encouraged him and played an instrumental role in helping him start his import/export business, in which he sold department store surplus and returns to countries around the world.

I am her son.

She was a sweet, strong woman. She lost her battle to colon cancer when I was 6. My father made good on her final words, to take care of my brother, my older sister Ekeeti, and myself.

In 1999, Nigeria began a deregulation effort in the downstream portion of the oil and gas industry and that created opportunities for those like my father to invest. I suppose that’s where my interest in the industry came from.

In the end, I’m just a guy who enjoys football and likes science.

My interest in football has been there all along. I used to get up at 6 a.m. on Saturdays to watch ESPN’s College GameDay, and imagined how special it would be to be a part of that someday. With my success at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, that soon became a reality.

Playing running back and safety, I rushed for 1,828 yards on 221 carries and scored 36 touchdowns my senior year. Of those TDs, 30 were rushing, two receiving, one on an interception return, two on punt returns, and another on a kickoff return. I was named Division I State Player of the Year by MaxPreps and helped lead Bellarmine to a 12-1 record, a Central Coast Section Open Division championship, and within a whisker of playing for the state title.

I was confident in my abilities, and if you asked me whether I could do anything on the field, I would have said … “Yes.”

My former coach, Mike Janda recently remarked: “I’ve been the head coach now for 35 years at Bellarmine and I don’t think there’s been a more dominant and impactful player that I’ve coached in all those years. He impacted the game in all ways all the time.” It was an honor to be a part of the rich football tradition at that school.

Usua AmanamI knew I would have to earn my playing time at Stanford, especially since I came in with two of the nation’s top running back prospects, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Today, they own four of the top 10 rushing seasons in school history.

That wasn’t a problem. I enjoy competing. At every level, most thought I was undersized – I’m 5-foot-9. But there’s nothing quite like quietly preparing, doing your work, and turning people into believers.

During my very first player-led practice at Stanford, I broke my toe. I was going out for a pass and the defender clipped the bottom of my foot. Something similar occurred the previous year and I knew that instant that something was seriously wrong.

Still, I was excited to return for the start of the season. But on the second-to-last day of rehab, I broke it again. I don’t think I was ever the same. I certainly wasn’t able to move like I used to. The range of mobility just wasn’t there. I’m not very big, so my feet and my legs … that was everything.

By the time I returned, I was near the bottom of the depth chart, though I did begin to work my way back throughout the 2010 season, returning kicks mostly. In a scrimmage before the Orange Bowl, I suffered a severe ankle sprain and soon was back at the bottom. The four other players I competed with all ended the season playing very well, and I knew it would be an uphill battle to get back into the rotation.

While I was rehabbing in Miami, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio approached me and said, “You might want to consider coming over to the defensive side of the ball. I’ve seen you play and I think we can use you over here.”

Internally, I dismissed the idea of transitioning to defense. My love of the sport was wrapped up in me playing running back. Even with coaches Jim Harbaugh and Fangio leaving for the 49ers that offseason, new head coach David Shaw shared their view and asked, “How would you like to play defensive back?”

I said I would give it a shot, but left enough of an opening to return to offense. At first, I wasn’t really committed to defense, but soon I realized a switch back wasn’t going to happen. That redshirt sophomore year was difficult because I was learning a new position and wasn’t doing what I enjoyed.

Usua AmanamThat 2011 season was tough for another reason – I started to lose my hair. I can remember waking up with hair on my pillow that had fallen out the night before. Drying my hair after showers was always tricky, because the friction would remove significant amounts. I looked in the mirror and saw my eyelashes falling out.

Not many people know about alopecia, an autoimmune disease, and I didn’t know how to handle it.

It happened so quickly. From the time I started losing my hair – during training camp – to where I lost it all was probably 4-5 months. My brother connected me with Stanford physician and professor, Dr. Anthony Oro. But immunosuppressants aren’t necessarily what you want to be on while playing a contact sport or spending significant time in a weight room.

Some days, I’ll be completely comfortable with it and on others, insecure. It can be isolating. But at a certain point, you become tired of organizing your life around certain insecurities.

A turning point came while listening to an NPR interview with Manon Hessels of the Children’s Alopecia Project. I was so moved that I sent her an e-mail and became connected with the Northern California CAP community. Before that, I hadn’t met anyone with it.

My alopecia serves as a constant reminder that everyone deals with something, and encourages me to be aware of that when interacting with others. It’s a blessing in that sense. This experience also hastened my maturation, changing perspectives, and what I sought in relationships in the process, as maturation tends to do.

I channeled my frustrations and focus on schoolwork and football, and things improved.

I didn’t think I would be very good at defense, but after Michael Thomas graduated, I was playing more nickel – a fifth defensive back, used mostly in passing situations. And I liked it.

We blitzed a lot out of that personnel group, and I had the opportunity to rush, using the speed, quickness, and elusiveness that made me such a great high school running back. This was something unique that I could bring to the position. I wasn’t removed from the action like most defensive backs – I was closer to it and regained my love of the game.

Shaw and defensive coordinator Derek Mason, in essence, created a new weapon – one that teams couldn’t account for. In our first game of the 2012 season, I had two sacks against San Jose State. Over the season, I had four sacks, 10 ½ tackles for losses, seven pass breakups, and three fumble recoveries.

The timing was perfect. When I first got to Stanford, Oregon had just started a run that would eventually result in two national championship appearances and the widespread adoption of the spread offense. That most teams in the Pac-12 were now using multiple wideout sets was of benefit to me because I was averaging the same number of plays a traditional starter would.

To win the Pac-12 North Division and have a shot at the Rose Bowl, we had to win our last regular-season game against UCLA. Stepfan scored in the third quarter and on the ensuing kickoff, Alex Debniak forced a fumble that I returned 11 yards for another touchdown to ice it.

Stanford hadn’t won a Rose Bowl in 41 years when we took the field against Wisconsin on Jan. 1, 2013. The game was hard-fought and a defensive struggle. We held a 20-14 lead with just over two minutes left and Wisconsin at midfield making its final push.

If you want to play fast, you need to let your body and mind go on autopilot. I relied on film study to recognize formations and offensive tendencies to make the right call, be in the right place, and play loose. When a play unfolds, you feel the flow of the offense. So, if a receiver is running a crossing route and the quarterback’s body is facing a certain way, and you’ve prepared properly, you know where things are going.

I lined up across from the slot receiver on second-and-6, and dropped into zone coverage. The tight end stuck his route and turned to look for the ball. I stepped in front and made the interception. I celebrated with my teammates, and ran to the bench clutching the ball in my left hand while raising my index finger toward the sky with my right. I gave the ball to my father and the jersey to my brother.

A year earlier, after a painful overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, Andrew Luck and Michael Thomas walked off the field after their final collegiate game with their arms around each other and smiles on their faces.

Usua Amanam speaking with ESPN reporter.

They always had perspective, and that’s what I wanted when I was done playing. Nothing works out perfectly, but in this instance, I think it’s fair to say that things worked out just fine. The best part of the experience, when I look back on my time playing football, especially here at Stanford, were the people. Our games always served as a meeting place for friends and family, providing the perfect excuse to get together and spend time with one another.

After it was over, I thought the best way to become a ‘true academic’ was to distance myself from my athletic past. In retrospect, that was foolish and quite contrary to the axiom of Stanford Athletics. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive and, as time has gone on, that unique experience has become more and more valuable.

After earning my BS in energy resources engineering in 2013 and my MS in petroleum engineering in 2015, I am now a PhD candidate in energy resources engineering, working under Professor Tony Kovscek. I am planning to defend my dissertation this spring.

If you ask Tony, he’ll say I wasn’t a risk, that not all candidates have perfect credentials. He says that athletes often are successful in postgraduate work because they have perfected the skill of organizing their time.

My research subgroup tries to understand better the process of getting crude oil that is similar in consistency to that of crystallized honey, at ambient conditions, out of hydrocarbon reservoirs. We do this by generating thermal energy in situ by way of combustion (ISC).

My specific research, funded by Ecopetrol and the Siebel Scholars Foundation, explores the effects of different nanoparticles on the chemical kinetics of the process. At a more fundamental level, I investigate and gauge the improvements introduced by nanoparticles during heavy oil production. There is a positive correlation between energy intensity and carbon intensity. We like to think that ISC is a less energy-intensive way of getting heavy crude oil out of the ground. A portion of my work looks to quantify this.

More often than not, I can be found in the Henry J. Ramey Jr. Memorial Lab in the Green Earth Sciences Building, measuring the reactivity of different crude oils in a kinetics cell reactor, visualizing nanoparticle delivery to porous media using microfluidics, or tracking the efficiency of combustion in the combustion tube. Outside of the lab, I turn the raw data collected from experiments into useful analytical tools to examine the combustion process as a whole. I’ve been in my research group for more than four years now, and I’m still amazed by the before and after of the oil that we upgrade.

The first class I ever took in the ERE department was taught in part by Tony, the Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor of Petroleum Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy. A few years after that, Tony agreed to become my advisor.

He gave me an opportunity. I didn’t have as much research experience as others who came to our department for postgraduate work. It was difficult finding the time because of my football obligations.

If you ask Tony, he’ll say I wasn’t a risk, that not all candidates have perfect credentials. He says that athletes often are successful in postgraduate work because they have perfected the skill of organizing their time.

Football has been a blessing. I’ve learned stamina, which is something you master playing football. I learned how to cope with adversity -- injuries, switching positions, and a lack of playing time.

That’s how research is. There are many ill-defined problems and no structured solution paths. It can be tough at times. You have to be patient and work through the setbacks.

Usua Amanam and Tony Kovscek working in the lab

This spring, a few of my colleagues and I will defend our respective dissertations in front of a five-person committee. There’s a 45-minute public presentation, and then it goes behind closed doors. It’s just you and the committee. You don’t have many opportunities to discuss your work at length, so even though it will be challenging, I know it will be exciting.

In the end, I’m just a guy who enjoys football and likes science. I have done my best to take advantages of the opportunities and resources available to me and have continually pursued my interests. I certainly struggled to balance it all at times, but I stuck with it. There’s a quote that Coach Harbaugh put up in our old locker room, from Bo Schembechler: “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” And I believe that. Persistence. That’s what my father taught me, and that is what his story has shown me.

I know I have to put my degrees to good use and make a positive impact, however significant or inconsequential that may be. We all have to make the most of the opportunities and the talents God has given us.

Ultimately, I want to say that I supported my family and lived out the values imparted by my parents. I want to honor the legacy of those I love and respect.

I spent some time with my cousins last summer in Nigeria. On our way back home one day, we decided to stop at the place my father grew up.

As you get older, you realize how hard it is to do anything in this world. Now that I’m able to understand the magnitude of everything that my father did -- coming from true poverty and living the American dream -- I’m in awe.

His home … it’s really just overgrown vegetation now. That’s where it was. That’s where we’re from. There wasn’t much there.

But I know better.

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences


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