Not just a man’s world

Saturday February 15 2014

Charity Mutegi, woman scientist and expert on aflatoxin.

Charity Mutegi, woman scientist and expert on aflatoxin. Photo/EMMA NZIOKA

By FLORENCE BETT
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Charity Mutegi, 38

Charity Mutegi is a household name in the science circles. Charity is a food scientist who has bagged three competitive global awards for work she has done on a fungus called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, Charity explains, is a fungus that affects maize and peanuts.

Charity won two awards in 2006. The Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (LEAP) fellowship award, and the Gender and Diversity Women Scientists fellowship award (now called AWARD).

In 2009, she won the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.

What path did her life take to have aflatoxin as her pet project? Charity, a mother of one daughter, was raised in rural Meru by a single dad. She is the second child in a family of five – three boys and two girls.

All through primary and secondary school, Charity excelled in the sciences more than the arts. Her choice for an undergraduate degree was, naturally, a science.

“I missed civil engineering by one point. So I chose food science at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.”

Charity’s class of 21 students had only four females. Charity graduated with honours in 1997 and opted for the dynamism of field research over the monotony of a job in the food industry.

“KARI posted me to Mtwapa. It was in that time my work with aflatoxin and other food funguses began,” Charity says.

AFLATOXIN RESEARCH

Aflatoxin became her area of research for her master’s and doctorate degree. And from 2006, Charity’s hard work put her name on the map when she won the global awards.

The awards catapulted her career across Africa and the world. Her name became synonymous with aflatoxin. Charity’s fast-paced work schedule slowed down when she had her daughter four-and-a-half years ago. She chose to settle in Kenya to focus on her family and other investments.

Charity works now with KARI, but is on a secondment programme to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a global research company.

One can’t resist asking whether growing up in a male-dominated household had an influence on her decision to pursue science. “Not quite,” Charity says. “My father was a man of medicine himself. But his focus was on a sound education. And he constantly reminded me that anything a man can accomplish, I can.”

Her siblings followed her into science, with two of her brothers into engineering and her younger siblings in business-related courses.

Charity, amicable and mild of mannerisms, emphasises the importance of young women seeking mentorship as they pursue science as a career.

NOT TOO MANY FEMALE SCIENTISTS

Charity is aware that there aren’t too many female scientists in the industry. And even as she lists her professional mentors, the female scientists are few and far between.

Charity adds that there is a misconception of the image of female scientists – one of drab outfits, of an absence of personal grooming, of women who can’t hold a conversation beyond the walls of the laboratory.

“The female scientists in the industry, are now changing that image,” Charity says between laughs. “The nature of our work doesn’t ask for us to be glamorous, anyway. But the level of our grooming is decent and acceptable.”

When Charity isn’t out in Eastern Province working with farmers amongst the maize farms or at her laboratory at IITA, she is reading, travelling ‘to clear her mind’ or at the Phoenix Theatre watching a play. If she wasn’t working in science, “I would be managing people,” Charity says.

Sheila Ommeh, 37

Sheila Ommeh is a woman who has embraced indigenous poultry for everything they are. Sheila, a mother of two boys, is a molecular geneticist who has put her life’s work to preserve indigenous poultry.

It is this work that has earned her global awards and recognitions. The first was in 2008. Sheila was awarded the global and prestigious AWARD (African Women in Agriculture Research and Development) fellowship.

“The award changed everything for me. AWARD is a comprehensive package that has a two-year fellowship programme in mentorship, leadership and management tailor-made for women.

Most important, I got placement to do my research anywhere in the world,” she says. Sheila is a mix of humility, laughter and tears as she speaks about the win.

In 2009, Sheila was recognised as the Most Promising Young Scientist by the Lions Club International, Italian Chapter. And in 2013, she was awarded the International Foundation of Science Fellowship award.

The awards and recognitions trace their roots back to her mother, Hellen Natu. A doctor herself, she raised Sheila and her siblings on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

Sheila is the firstborn in a family of four girls and one boy. She is the only child from the household to become a scientist. Sheila’s strength in the sciences was cemented by her high school principal who took it upon herself to mentor Sheila.

By 16, Sheila was certain of what she wanted career-wise.

Sheila took up an undergraduate degree in biomedical technology at Egerton University. She was one of seven girls in a class of 30. Her graduating class of 2002 was the first to graduate from the course.

INDIGENOUS POULTRY, YOU SAY?

How did indigenous poultry become her line of focus? “I was keen to get into veterinary research. The programme I applied for had a choice of cattle, goat or indigenous poultry. I am from Western Kenya so you can guess where I naturally fell,” Sheila says with a hearty laugh.

Sheila now works as a research fellow at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Her line of work includes, among other things, supervising postgraduate and doctorate students for their research projects.

While she notes that there is an encouraging ratio of male to female students, she adds that the doctorate programme is more male-dominated. “Most women reach the Master’s level then leave to start their family. My advice to women is that you can successfully pursue academics and family.”

It’s true: Sheila had her two boys between degrees – she had her first son in 2005, a year into her master’s degree. Her second son came in 2011, before she graduated with her doctorate degree.

“Having a family did not interfere with my work. If anything, it became my biggest motivation. My husband and I are a team. He is particularly supportive because he’s a scientist himself,” she says.

“He understands the rigours and demands of science.” Sheila married Luke Olang’ – a doctor in engineering –as she started her master’s degree in 2004. So does science dictate her wardrobe and lifestyle choices?

“Not as one would imagine. I mind my fingernails and toenails and my hair like any other woman. I love my African jewellery. I make time outside of work to do the things I love: camping and hiking.”

If indigenous poultry had not been her life’s pursuit, Sheila would be involved in wildlife conservation and endangered species.

Damaris Muhia, 33

Damaris Muhia is a scientist from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) who has given molecular research into mosquitoes a new face. The 33-year-old mother of two girls has spent the last five years studying the genetics of mosquitoes with an aim to eradicate malaria.

In 2006, Damaris was awarded the TWOWS (Third World Organisation for Women in Science) Award, for her contribution to science.

Where did her love for science arise? Damaris was drawn to science by chance, not choice. Growing up in Kisii, she says, she preferred the company of her father – who was a teacher in mathematics – to that of her disciplinarian mother.

It was through this interaction that her love for numbers grew. All the same, she excelled in both the arts and sciences while in primary school and high school. Damaris imagined she would become an accountant or a statistician.

Damaris is the first child in a close-knit family of eight, five boys and three girls. Of her seven siblings, two went into science and engineering. All others are in business-related courses.

After high school, Damaris left to study in the University of Mysor in South India for her both her undergraduate degree in biochemistry and her Master’s degree in biotechnology. The female to male student ratio was surprisingly unbalanced: sixteen girls in a class of thirty students.

Damaris graduated in 2009, and returned to Kenya in the same year for her doctorate degree in molecular medicine at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. It was here that her work on malaria and eradicating mosquitoes began.

Damaris had her two girls when she started and completed her PhD, in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

FAMILY AND WORK BALANCE

In response to whether having a family got in the way of her work, she says no. “I met my husband, Robert Muhia, when I was on attachment here in KEMRI while pursuing my Master’s degree. My husband is one of my professional mentors, and has been instrumental in driving my career forward.”

On whether she believes that science is a more male-oriented career, “Science is about brains, not muscle. It is a passion. It is a career about will, desire and focus. You need plenty of patience to see the results of your work.”

Would she wish for her children to pursue the same path in science? Of course, I would, she says, “If they wanted it though; you can’t push these things on your kids. I have not seen any signs of a scientist in them. They are more into the arts.”

Beyond the gates of KEMRI, Damaris is heavily involved with her local church and choir. She also enjoys spending time outdoors with her young family.

As a young scientist, one of the challenges she faces is in receiving donor funding. Proposals that are rejected on the basis of lack of her experience has been a challenge she has learnt to work around.

Does being female contribute to this? “No, it doesn’t. Female candidates are encouraged to apply. In fact, it’s to your advantage to be female.” The awards she received in her undergraduate degree and the recognitions she has had in her career with KEMRI thus far have sharpened her edge further.

If eradicating malaria was not her life’s work, “I would be in a field that involves math,” says Damaris.