Ayodele Lewis: A Voice and Vision for Change

Ayodele Lewis: A Voice and Vision for Change
Through her academic and extracurricular work, Lewis has made an indelible mark on each community she’s touched. Photo courtesy of Ayo Lewis ’21.

From conducting critical research to igniting change at Amherst and beyond, neuroscience major Ayodele (“Ayo”) Lewis has built a stellar track record over the course of her four years. 

While her accomplishments are undoubtedly impressive, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the depth that is Lewis’s intellect and character. The driving force behind it all? An unwavering passion for and commitment to uplifting marginalized groups. 

Life Before Amherst

A proud native New Yorker, Lewis credits much of her personal development to her upbringing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Lewis said “that will always be my home and I really attribute the great diversity of that community to who I am today. It’s a proud Puerto Rican and Orthodox Jewish, Black [community] and Chinatown is right next door — it’s just such a beautifully diverse neighborhood.” 

Lewis also spent a significant portion of her formative years on the Upper East Side, attending the Brearley School for grades K-12. An active student, Lewis dedicated her time to diversity work, notably leading Umoja, the school’s Black student union. 

Her passion for science began around age seven and was largely influenced by her close relationship with her grandfather, who was an obstetrician. 

She recalled being fascinated by their conversations, explaining, “he sat down and talked to me in the most scientific, adult way possible and I was like: ‘This is so cool!’ I didn’t understand a word of what he said, but I just fell in love from that moment on.” 

Those moments sparked a deep interest that has only continued to grow as she’s gotten older. Her passion took on new meaning when she began to uncover the grave disparities in healthcare, specifically in her primary area of interest: reproductive health. 

Describing it as a “beautiful, sad intersection of [her] passions,” Lewis has been able to pursue her academic interests while simultaneously supporting marginalized communities through this work: “To know that I could make a difference within my community … that’s what’s kept me going all these years… I feel like I have to do this.” 

Lewis’s path toward public health isn’t merely an intellectual pursuit — it’s a calling that embraces everything she stands for as a person. “I really hope to dedicate my life to … supporting Black marginalized people, especially Black women and that is the through line through everything I do from the BSU [Black Student Union], to medicine, to neuroscience … literally everything I do is devoted to uplifting and supporting Black women,” she explained. 

Journey to Amherst

While Lewis has thrived in the liberal arts environment, she didn’t originally see herself at a school like Amherst. “I wanted to go to a big school with one of those fast-track medical programs and be super into science, not even look at a book, for my entire four years of college,” Lewis joked. 

Yet a talk by an Amherst admissions representative illuminated the Amherst experience and reminded her of someone very dear to her. Describing him as “the most well-rounded man [she] knew,” and “a man of science but also… music… art… history and English,” Lewis explained that her grandfather, an Amherst alumnus, was very influential in her life. “As I sat there that day with the Amherst admissions rep, everything he said about the Amherst education was everything I valued in my grandfather. In everything he said about an Amherst student, I saw my grandfather and that was what I wanted for myself.” At that moment, Lewis set her sights on a liberal arts education at Amherst. 

Discovering Passion and Direction in the Sciences

Upon arriving at Amherst, Lewis wanted to embark on the pre-med track and major in Black studies. While she ultimately did not pursue the latter, she’s incredibly happy with the path she’s taken in neuroscience. For Lewis, neuroscience is very interdisciplinary and strikes a unique balance between humanities and STEM, distinct from other STEM majors. 

Lewis also emphasized the passion she has developed for statistics and how it has informed her professional career path. Speaking on the first statistics class she took with Professor Shu-Min Liao, Lewis explained, “that course has probably changed the trajectory of my life … the whole reason that I’m into public health now is because of her” and later proclaimed that “falling in love with stats was the biggest, lucky decision of my life.” 

Lewis’s love for science has been further bolstered by her research experiences with Amherst alumnus OB/GYN James Greenberg ’84 and teams at the Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (IECS) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Conducting clinical research focused largely on disparities has strengthened her desire to pursue public health. During her time with Dr.Greenberg, Lewis has done everything from researching point-of-care testing for biomarkers during labor to spending time on an actual labor and delivery floor. “I focused primarily on whether or not being a person of color, someone who doesn’t speak English, a low-income person, whether those factors change your birth outcomes, whether or not you have a C-section, whether or not it’s a traumatic birth … so that’s something we’re still currently working on,” Lewis said. 

She’s even had the opportunity to apply her studies in statistics and neuroscience to the research, opening new doors and a compelling path for her. She described one particularly transformative experience in which she volunteered to do a statistical analysis on a set of abstracts (data). “I did it with the help of everything Shu-Min taught me … and it got me on two abstracts where all of my peers just had one.” This work inspired her decision to study abroad and continue exploring this area as a professional career path: “That’s when I was like, ‘What?! You can do it all? You can do stats and public health and caring about disparities and all of that’ … that’s the reason I went abroad to study public health and how I ended up at IECS.” 

At IECS, Lewis assumed an integral role working on an international team. “They threw me on a team to come up with a new set of guidelines for the WHO [World Health Organization] about postpartum hemorrhage …[and] how it can be applicable because, right now, there’s a lot of really good information and … techniques but they’re really only applicable to high-income countries.” She further explained, “we’re going over all the work and seeing what is the best route of care for everyone, from low-income to high-income countries.” 

Lewis’s highly intensive research experiences have inspired her interest in pursuing public health. Photo courtesy of Ayo Lewis ’21.

Active Engagement

“She doesn’t take the easy route… you can expect her to give more than 100 percent. She sets her own bar and goes above and beyond it,” said Lewis’s mom, Denise Greene. 

On top of her academics and research, Lewis’s impact extends even further to her diverse extracurricular activities. A senior member of the BSU, as well as member of Hillel and the Equestrian team, Lewis’s extensive involvement reflects a genuine interest in contributing to each community of which she is a part. Commenting on Lewis’s self-propelled drive to explore new spaces, Greene shared, “she’s driven by curiosity and when she attaches herself to a community, she goes all in and wants to know everything and participate even though it might not be comfortable … I think her greatest strength is her ability to try new things … Not too many people have that bravery and to do it without being pushed — you know, pushing herself — I think it’s just so impressive.” 

Lewis’s commitment to uplifting marginalized communities transcends everything she does. Regarding the BSU, Lewis shared the group’s commitment to “creating intentional space for Black students but then also informing the non-Black community members about the joy that we hold and everything, our accomplishments on campus and raising awareness for the issues … that are still out there.” As a leader of the BSU, Lewis has driven critical initiatives that have sought to hold institutions of power accountable for their history and perpetuation of systemic racism. 

She has had a major role in movements on Amherst’s campus such as Reclaim Amherst, Integrate Amherst and Black Minds Matter. She also had a hand in conceiving of and propelling the “Black At” movement, a social media campaign that highlights the day-to-day microaggressions  experienced by students of color at predominantly white institutions. She started “Black At” with some high school friends after Brearley released a tone-deaf response to George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests. 

“We created an account so that Black students could share their stories and … traumas and things that they had experienced at Brearley, and it blew up overnight. Now there are hundreds of ‘Black At’ accounts for institutions across the country and across the globe, including Black Amherst Speaks. It’s really brought light to the day-to-day struggles of Black students, not just the larger, the ones that get publicized, the scratching of slurs into dorms, but the actual lived experience of a Black student day-to-day at their institutions.” 

When asked to describe Lewis, close friend and BSU peer, Zoe Akoto ’21, said, “a humble, strong mind … She’s so determined, such a brilliant person, but doesn’t give herself the credit she deserves on what she brings to the community, the table and all the different spaces and organizations she’s a part of.” Akoto further underscored how much Lewis’s leadership has shaped the BSU: “She’s such a natural leader and I’m not really sure she even realizes it because I think it comes so inherently to her … [her] ability to facilitate, to bring a group together or work a room in that way is so impressive to me.” 

Akoto also emphasized the extent of Lewis’s outreach as a Brearley alum. According to Akoto, Lewis has successfully compelled Brearley to significantly improve its diversity and inclusion efforts. 

“In this space where these changes don’t actually affect her, she’s literally doing it for the next generation because she knows this is the right thing to do and she can’t not do it,” said Akoto.

The Next Chapter

After graduation, Lewis hopes to kick-start her career in medicine by first becoming a doula. Next year, she will return to Amherst for post-baccalaureate studies and anticipates conducting research within the statistics department. 

From there, she plans to attend medical school and ultimately pursue a master’s or Ph.D. in public health, specifically focusing on obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive justice.  With an incredible college career behind her and passionate drive propelling her, the future is undeniably bright for Ayo Lewis.