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No career is inferior, just give it your best shot

Friday April 6 2018

Prof Catherine Ngila.

Prof Catherine Ngila, the deputy director of Training, Academics and Linkages at Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas during an interview at Nation Centre, Nairobi, on March 29, 2018. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JAMES KAHONGEH
By JAMES KAHONGEH
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Drawing from your experiences, what career mistakes should young people avoid?

Never turn down any opportunity offered to you. My first choice of career was pharmacy, but I fell short of the required cut-off points, which locked me out of pharmacy. I was instead invited to study a Bachelor of Education in Science. I took it with enthusiasm.

I taught in Kitui Boys High School for a year before becoming a university lecturer in 1989. Understand your strengths and focus them on what you love doing. No occupation is inferior, you only need to give it your best possible shot.

Are there opportunities that you overlooked as a young person that you now appreciate?

Early on, I feared that participating in sporting activities would compromise my studies. As age sets in you become less flexible and lose the energy to perform strenuous activities. If I could turn back the clock, I would actively be involved in sports.

Research demands a lot of time and concentration. How can the youth, (who are generally impatient and easily distracted) thrive in the world of research?

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Most young people find it hard to keep up with the pressure in research work. They lack patience and resilience, which are essential in research work. My advice is, identify what you want to become in the next five or 10 years and work hard towards that. At times, life will take a different turn from what you envisage, you will tumble along the way, but do not lose sight of your goal. Always take the easiest route to your original target and keep walking. I had worked in the academia for 22 years before I was appointed full professor by the University of Johannesburg in 2011.

Recognition of your scientific work has mostly come from outside Kenya. Is Kenya less appreciative of scientific contributions from her homebred scientists?

I have lived outside Kenya for a long time, studying and lecturing at South African universities. Most Kenyans did not know about my research accomplishments until last year when I won the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Award for Scientific Excellence. I returned to Kenya in 2017 to become the deputy director of Training, Academics and Linkages at Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas of the Kenya Pipeline Company. Lately, I am getting numerous invitations to deliver keynote lectures in local science forums.

There has been over-emphasis on science courses in Kenya. Why do we still have few locally-assembled solutions for our inherent problems?

To become a leading knowledge economy, a country must have a greater focus on fundamental sciences and cutting-edge technologies required to support the practical experience of sciences. Science and engineering require each other because basic science theories give birth to engineering innovations. Singapore and South Korea have successfully exploited their human and intellectual capital to establish highly competitive technology-driven economies. In Kenya, science and engineering have not significantly translated into practical innovations, which explains the few local scientific innovations.

Where are we failing?

While we may have successful innovation stories such as M-Pesa, the slow rate of translating science and engineering knowledge to innovation derives from inadequate investment in science and engineering research and equipment in universities. This prevents students from putting into practice the science concepts learned in class. In most institutions, students and lecturers rely on diagrams to explain scientific concepts, which does little to develop their hands-on-experience. While the government has made deliberate efforts to intensify innovation projects in priority sectors, the 2 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product that goes to research is way too little for a developing country.

What should we do to rectify this situation?

There has been significant progress in the last two to three years, after the creation of the National Research Fund (NRF) in 2015 under the Ministry of Education to finance research projects. The government should, however, allocate more funds for research activities. It would also help to create a separate ministry to address and focus on engineering, science, technology and innovation (STI).

What does nanotechnology involve and why is it important in the Kenyan context?

This is the study and application of extremely small particles of matter. It can be used across science fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering to develop practical technologies. The most immediate application of nanotechnology in Kenya would be in water purification and in food security. It can also be used to harness energy production, in medical applications and to develop computer technologies.

You are a water researcher, what measures should Kenya adopt to eradicate the household challenge of water shortage in Kenya?

Water-focused organisations should work closely with the government and communities to define and address their local water needs. The country should also champion innovation of complex water purification systems by providing funds for research and development efforts towards production and distribution of the commodity. Simple technologies such as how to test water qualities such as pH, conductivity for salinity tests, and bioassay tests should be within reach of all people. More focus has to go to harvesting water from surface runoff and rooftop rainwater and improvement of storage facilities. We must also walk the talk in conservation of the country’s water catchments, such as forests, recharging groundwater aquifers and building dams as well as improving wastewater treatment methods. Combined, these efforts have the potential to improve water access in the country.

What has your experience been like, working in South Africa?

I have succeeded as a researcher mostly due to the unlimited access to research funding and well-equipped research facilities available in Kwazulu-Natal and Johannesburg universities. Institutions such as the National Research Foundation and Water Research Commission provided grants that facilitated my research and research tours to various centres in the world. The South Africa Department of Science and Technology promotes women researchers by supporting and rewarding their achievements, an incentive that is lacking in Kenya. This encourages women researchers to pursue research more proactively. It is also uncommon to find members of the academia moonlighting since they are actively involved with research work. Kenya has a host of lessons to learn from South Africa.

How do you spend your time away from research?

I occasionally take nature walks to unwind and reflect. I love reading novels and biographies of celebrities and politicians. I also watch TV shows and movies a great deal.

What inspiring books/movies have you read/watched that you would recommend to someone reading this?

I have read biographies of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela and lately, Wale Akinyemi’s ‘Creative Thinking’. I read these mainly for purposes of creative and transformative thinking. Their experiences reorient your outlook of life and arouse in you a strong need to stretch yourself to change your circumstances and impact others positively. Young people should read these books. 

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