The potential of stem cells in the treatment of various diseases, especially those of the brain, is amazing. That’s what Dr Juliet Obanda Makanga — lecturer, neuropharmacologist and biotechnologist— loves about her work
Tell us about yourself?
I am a research scientist and lecturer in neuropharmacology and stem-cell biotechnology.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a medical doctor. My parents are both physicians and it came naturally, I guess.
What does your job entail?
It’s a blend of teaching and research. It entails lecture planning and preparation, student teaching, assessment and mentoring, planning and supervising research projects, carrying out actual research and writing publications on the findings. Also attending conferences and community outreach programmes, such as medical camps.
What is your normal day like?
It starts at around 5am (I am a member of the 5am club). I treasure the quiet time before anyone else in my household gets up. I plan my day at this time. I prep my daughter for school and see her off.
From this point, every day is different. I get to campus between 7am and 9am, depending on the semester timetable. It’s classes, office hours for students, faculty meetings, desk work, hospital ward rotations and data collection. If I have laboratory experiments, the end of my work day depends on these. I am typically through by 6pm.
What do you love most about your work in neuropharmacology and stem-cell biotechnology?
The brain has always fascinated me. Getting to understand more about how drugs and other substances affect brain function just makes me happy. Also, the potential that stem cells hold in treatment of various diseases, especially those of the brain, is amazing.
You were one of the Top 40 under 40 awardees. How did it feel? Do you know why you were nominated?
Awesome! Honestly, I really do not see anything extraordinary that got me on the list. It is quite easy not to celebrate oneself. However, I do believe I did bring a “fresh” field to the list. There aren’t many of us.
For how long have you been practicing?
I am a pharmacist by virtue of my first degree. But I have never practiced. I found my passion in research.
Do you think the government is treating doctors well?
Lol! No comment.
Why did you choose this specialty?
My fascination with the brain and the potential of stem cells.
How do you handle workload stress and emergencies?
By simply doing what has got to be done. I prioritise whatever tasks need to be done and also delegate.
What are your weaknesses and strengths?
My strength has got to be my resilience. I just don’t quit. When I undertake a task, I do everything to see it to completion.
My weakness... I worry way more than I should.
Describe your successful accomplishments.
My PhD has got to be my most successful accomplishment yet. And I did it just as I turned 30.
Who is your role model?
My mother. Amazing woman.
What do you do during your free time?
Read, watch movies ...
What has been your biggest challenge in scientific research field?
Getting funding to carry out research projects.
What drives you?
Passion and life-long learning.
What is your take on women who want to join scientific research and academia medicine?
First, understand what the career path you are taking typically looks like. Be qualified or work towards attaining the qualifications.
You can only expect an even playing field if you are qualified to start with. Take the right courses and classes.
To each her own path. Your career does not have to play out as your role model or mentor’s did. The focus should be on the goal.
Motherhood (should it be upon you at some point) should never be the reason not to advance in your career and education. It may not be easy but it is do-able. Get creative with your time.
Last, (especially for careers in science and academia that expect women to look a certain way. I get told quite a lot that I do not look like what I do). If make-up is your thing, by all means wear it. Heels, hair... the same. Enjoy being you. Be you, unapologetically.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
That I am able to do what I love and at the same time nurture future pharmacists and researchers.
Tell us about your family.
I am married with one daughter.
How do you balance your job and family life?
I had my daughter when I was just a year into my doctorate, so I have gone through a baptism of fire on this one.
I have learnt to plan, prioritise tasks and utilise time efficiently. I am very mindful and deliberate with my time.
That way, work doesn’t encroach on my family time. Work hard, and work smart.
What is your favourite meal?
Nyama choma, ugali and kachumbari.
What do you spend most of your money on?
I wouldn’t say most of my money, but I am a skincare and make-up enthusiast. That does put a dent in the wallet.
What are your future plans?
Mount research in the field I am currently most interested in — which is stem cells and regenerative medicine in Kenya.