Advance Kenyan science by embracing collaborative opportunities

Environmental scientist Veronica Okello develops sustainable approaches for cleaning heavy metals.Photo credit: Esther Sweeney for nature

Voices from Africa

Some Kenyans tend to equate calm with being nice, says analytical environmental chemist Veronica Okello of Kenya‘s Machakos University. She urges young researchers to be less shy about speaking out and reaching out to their professors for career opportunities. In this seventh of eight articles detailing the career experiences of African women in science, Okello describes how the support of family members enabled her to study abroad and how she nurtures the networks she forged abroad to to promote cooperation.

I was a part-time lecturer at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakamega, Kenya when I was offered a PhD scholarship at Binghamton University in New York in 2008. At this point I was married with two boys aged 3 and 5.

My husband and late mother were so supportive. They said, “You go. We will help you.” Every summer my husband would come to the United States with the children, and every Christmas he would send me a ticket to visit home. He sent money for my car and my apartment and called every day: when it was 7 p.m., my fellow students knew who was calling when my phone rang. I returned to Kenya in December 2014 and became a lecturer at Machakos University in February 2015. I teach analytical and environmental chemistry and the fundamentals of nanotechnology to undergraduate and graduate students. I started the Go Green Chemistry Club for students; Club members plant trees and conduct environmental cleanup and science projects.

My research focuses on developing eco-friendly, sustainable approaches to cleaning up heavy metals like chromium, arsenic and lead that pollute the environment. For example, chromium-6 is a carcinogen, but chromium-3 is benign, so we are looking for environmentally friendly compounds that can reduce chromium-6 to chromium-3.

Doing research after returning to Kenya was a challenge. During my doctoral studies I had many more publications on my CV than afterwards. But working together has worked wonders. I have relied on my US network to help me win six grants to properly equip our lab from the ground up. Working with established professors here and at other universities in Kenya has also helped me. A group of lecturers hired at my university between 2015 and 2018 write grants together to buy equipment for research and teaching.

I say to young female researchers in Kenya that there are many opportunities – but you have to get out of your comfort zone and look for them. They won’t come to you. You gotta put the work in.

I often see people who grew up in Kenya being shy and afraid to approach their professors. They think it’s nice to be quiet. But my advice to young researchers is to be a big personality and speak respectfully and express your opinions. Turning to professors for opportunities is one way to be on the right track. And as soon as an opportunity presents itself, grab it and run with it.

Young women who have already started their families face great challenges. I advise these women to check whether their spouses can support them with further studies – not necessarily abroad, but perhaps in their own country.

Once young researchers have a university position, they should identify someone at their institution as their mentor. For me, this was Zachary Getenga, an analytical chemist who has consistently guided me in writing grant proposals. He’s watching over me. I’m in my eighth year as an instructor and should have been promoted by now. But in our funding system, single-author work counts for more than grants or multi-author publications. I feel so demotivated by this. But he tells me to keep going to build my profile.

The political bodies of Kenyan universities are typically male-dominated. If I sat on one of these committees, I would change the promotions policy to award points to people who bring scholarships and equipment to the university. I brought over $28,000 worth of analyzers, including an electrochemical analyzer – that’s a great service to the university!

As a woman in science, time is the most limiting factor we have. Writing scholarships requires a great deal of time and effort that rivals my teaching, administrative meetings, and time with family. I’m trying to organize my own time – that’s why I’m doing this interview on Zoom from my car. You have to create the time when you want to thrive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About Sonia Martinez

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