14 December 2015

Dr Justina Ukpebor explains the challenges facing women scientists in her African homeland, and how Lancaster University is helping her, and other scientists, overcome them.

I can still hear my husband’s voice on the phone telling me to hurry and get the daily paper. “Your name is there!!!”  Those four words marked the beginning of my journey to the UK and Lancaster University.

I was still in shock when I finally realised that I had made ‘the list’: selected as the only female (and only person!) to represent my state for a PhD degree programme. To understand my amazement you need to be a female scientist in Nigeria.

The first challenge is being a woman - a female scientist working in a male dominated research area.  Then you need to factor in the level of nepotism that is endemic within Nigeria to understand that my chances of getting a PhD scholarship were very slim.

But not this time, this time merit won over nepotism. Prayers answered and I found myself as one of about 26 people chosen nationwide to be awarded a grant to undertake my PhD programme in the UK, paid for by the Petroleum Technology Development Fund of Nigeria.

My experience reflects some of the challenges that female scientists from Nigeria and other developing countries have to face: from being discouraged from entering “designated” male dominated science subjects to the view that the kitchen is the sole domain of a woman.

My science area, environmental chemistry, is laboratory based and requires fairly sophisticated instruments to measure trace chemicals like pesticides. So the lack of adequate laboratory facilities in Nigeria, or the often lengthy journey to transport samples to a suitable lab for analysis, makes research really difficult in my home country.

Most aspiring female academics gravitate towards non–science subjects, simply to avoid the setbacks associated with the lack of research facilities which hampers Nigerian science laboratories. I was therefore overwhelmed when I started my PhD here at the Lancaster Environment Centre at seeing everything that I required for my research literally at my fingertips.

On completing my PhD in 2011, I was worried about my career back in Nigeria and the few research opportunities at the University of Benin, my home university. Would I be able to carry out similar research to that undertaken in Lancaster, especially given the resource issues back in Nigeria?

The answer came in two ways. Firstly, from the Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future who provide funds with the sole purpose of encouraging women like me from developing countries to carry out PhD and post-doctoral research in developed countries.

Secondly, from the Lancaster Environment Centre with its innovative collaboration with a number of universities in Nigeria including the University of Benin. This link serves to promote research collaborations, particularly training opportunities for Benin staff and students, who wish to pursue PhD research.

For me, it works very well. As a post-doctoral research associate, I can conduct research in Lancaster which is directly relevant to environmental issues back in Nigeria and I intend to keep my links here when I return to Benin.

I also intend to use my links with the UK to benefit other African scientists, especially women: by exploiting opportunities to ship second hand scientific equipment back to Benin and by using my membership of the UK Royal Society of Chemistry to join the Pan-African Chemistry Network, perhaps launching a Nigerian hub!

I am one of the few lucky women scientists from the developing world who has received funding to conduct research abroad. There are many women from my country who would love to have a career in science and be able to pursue a research degree, along with access to the type of facilities found here in Lancaster.

With decent equipment and good collaboration it is possible to tap the potential of women scientists in Africa. Lancaster University has taken a leading role in developing relationships with key universities in my home country: this will empower, and develop the careers of, both male and female scientists in Nigeria.

The challenges are many for women scientists in the developing world but one thing is certain, our resilience and determination will always allow us to rise above our challenges.


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