Everyday People: Sandra Nkiruka Ike

The Ph.D. engineering candidate thrives on problem-solving.

Sandra Ike

Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria

Claim to fame: Received the 2021 Frank and Lucy Rusinko Graduate Fellowship for outstanding work in energy and mineral engineering.

Favorite class: Organic chemistry

Hobbies: Reading African literature—she’s currently enjoying Chinua Achebe’s African trilogy—and inspirational books like Find Your Why.


In Her Element
Sandra Ike was considering pre-med when she left her home in Nigeria to attend Florida International University. (She was raised by her mother in Nigeria, but her father lives in Florida.) But as an undergrad, she excelled in chemistry and math, and while taking organic chemistry classes she became fascinated with carbon. That sparked such an interest in fuel science that she explored doctorate programs, and she was thrilled to learn that Penn State’s Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering coursework included everything she wanted to study.

Winning Pitch
Ike’s Ph.D. research alongside adviser and EME professor Randy Vander Wal focuses on biopolymers and graphitic carbons, with the goal of engineering a greener process for mining energy resources. She explained their work in 90 seconds during the 2020 Millennium Café Pitch Competition—and took first place.

International Philanthropy
As president of Penn State’s Pan-African Professional Alliance, Ike launched the “Give Back to Africa Fund” to support developmental grassroots programs there. Last fall, PAN-APA members worked at Beaver Stadium concession stands and raised nearly $7,000 for three organizations: Cup Of Uji serves porridge at Kenyan primary schools; Health at Heart in Zimbabwe offers free health care in underprivileged villages; and Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women distributes science equipment around the continent. Says Ike: “These organizations are implementing practical solutions to issues people face.”

African Roots   
The 26-year-old speaks Igbo, her native language, and English. Her middle name, Nkiruka, means “the future is bright.”

What's Next
After she completes her degree in 2024, Ike expects to return to Africa, where she plans to focus on empowering youth. “I want to commit myself to the cause,” she says, “because I know what education has done for me.”