Stanford lab tech's journey from Central Africa to front lines of COVID-19 fight

"Before I accepted this job, there was no COVID. So I think God was just preparing me to be able to come to Stanford and to be able to help."
PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- There are so many heroes working behind the scenes in this pandemic. And learning what motivates them can be an inspiring.

Obadiah Mfuh Kenji is driven by faith, whether he's singing with his family in church, or searching for life-saving clues in a virology lab at Stanford. In many ways they are stops on the same journey. Kenji as his colleagues call him, grew up in Cameroon, in central Africa, the son of a minister, with dreams of someday studying at Stanford.

"Every young ambitious man in Cameroon has those dreams. But you know, my dad did not even own a credit card to even pay for my application fees," explains Kenji.

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So he embarked on a long journey, literally studying at stops around the world. The hard work earned him a Ph.D., and a lucrative career path in biotech. But he says he applied to Stanford's clinical virology lab, for a chance to help patients. Weeks later, the COVID-19 crisis hit.

"Before I accepted this job, there was no COVID. So I think God was just preparing me to be able to come to Stanford and to be able to help," says Kenji.

And the help Kenji and his colleagues provide is critical. He says the lab has tested more than half a million samples so far. It's also at the epicenter of the ongoing search for new variants of COVID-19. Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, M.D., Ph.D., directs the effort.

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"We're doing this variant detection, and are among the first in the country to identify a number of these variants.

Kenji says the Stanford lab is rich in talent, in part because of its diversity. Employing technicians with a wide variety of backgrounds. He says twelve hour days are not uncommon. But the team is driven by a sense of mission.

"When I look at the impact we are having on the lives of the patients. The impact we're having to slow down the curve or slow down this pandemic, that gives me a lot of fulfillment,"

And at the end of a long day, he says he often returns to the refuge he's enjoyed his entire life, spirituality and music.

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