Women of Discovery: Q&A With Sheila Ochugboju

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala on October 25. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. Our fIfth featured honoree in the series is Sheila Ochugboju, who is developing and leading pioneering African science, technology and innovation projects. She will receive our Humanity Award. Read the rest of the series here.

WWQ: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and exploration?

SO: As a child, different fields of science offered me the vital tools to explore the forests, riverbanks and bushlands where snakes, scorpions or any number of life-threatening bugs and insects might have attacked me. This was because until the age of nine I was growing up (very happily) within a forest-dependent rural community in Northern Cross Rivers State, Nigeria. Everyday before I stepped out to play, anywhere where an elder could see me, there would be a short lesson in entomology:

“She-she (my pet name), this kind ant…red like this…if it bite you…run home very fast.”

Or zoology: “Kaka (my middle name), the snake with the green body…that one you never fear. But that spotty brown one, with the light-colored belly, hiding behind the water pot…. that one go kill you.”

Or Microbiology: “Bwan-me (my child), this river we leave for the Gods alone to drink…never drink from it yourself. Inside…. small creatures dey live, eye no dey see them, if you drink, when they enter your belly, you go die.”

So I wondered endlessly about so many beautiful, vicious or benign, seen or unseen organisms living alongside us. How would we survive? Years later that curiosity led to the study of Medical Biochemistry for a first degree and Plant Biochemistry for a PhD at London University. Marriage and children intervened; then, I continued with a Research Fellowship at the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology, now the centre for Ecology and Hydrology Oxford. The Daphne Jackson Trust generously sponsored the fellowship, which is aimed at women, who have taken a career break for family reasons, to return to science. I was based at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford (when it was still a women’s only college) and my research area was on developing novel biopesticides (genetically engineering), using the Baculovirus Expression System.

Thereafter, my career has veered tangentially towards the humanities and for the last 15 years, I have worked as an International Development professional, with a focus on science policy projects in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. I’m currently the Lead Researcher for the Global State of Urban Youth Report for The United Nations Human Settlements Program. And I was recently appointed as one of the Global Roving Ambassadors for the County Government of Kisumu, Kenya, holding the portfolio of Transformative Science & Urban Resilience.

At the same time, I am also the Knowledge Management Specialist, for the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program. This is an international effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, and our team is providing the technical assistance to the Nigerian Government. We are highlighting “Issues and Options” which lead to a National Strategy to save the rapidly depleting forests in Nigeria, focusing on Cross Rivers State, where I was born. So it feels like a lovely full-circle moment in my life this year.

WWQ: What is it like to work as a woman in your field?

SO: It’s wonderful that now the international development world is raising up strong, dynamic women leaders, who are at the forefront of change in the fight against poverty and disease across the world. It’s no longer unusual to see women heading teams of scientists going to fight Ebola or developing strategies to alleviate suffering for displaced migrant communities in refugee camps like Dadaab in Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, which my friend Dr. Ebere Okereke, working for the International Rescue Committee described as an “open air hospital/prison camp/“home” for over 300,000 people in the last 24 years.”

And my program leaders for UN-REDD Nigeria are two incredible women: Elsie Attafuah (Senior Technical Lead for UNDP), supported by the Minister for Environment in Nigeria, Amina Mohammed. Both balancing the myriad of complex issues and challenges involved in tackling climate change.

That is not to say, however, that the systems of patriarchy and cultures of exclusion have now disappeared – to the contrary. My experience working in Africa offers regular reminders that those who actively seek to muffle the voices of women and constrain their power are as determined as ever. It’s not surprising, therefore, that most of the gender-related goals and targets for the Millennium Development Goals were missed. And despite incredible progress in medicine and science, thousands of women and children still die in childbirth or from simple preventable diseases, due to the lack of things so “commonplace” as clean water.

In Nigeria, the continuing scandal over the 276 Chibok schoolgirls, kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists and still missing after two years, is another damning indication of how little the lives of women and girls matter in many societies.

But still, I remain optimistic – for “the times, they are a-changing” and the increasing impact of transformations that can be attributed to the leadership of women in science and development continues to rise. More women will open more doors for many other women across all disciplines in the future.  

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

SO: In my opinion, the three greatest barriers are systems, perceptions and finance.

Systems: The work environment in many countries offers few choices for women to optimally adapt to different stages of life and careers. The career path for scientists favors the linear approach, from PhD to Post Doc to Lectureship or Research Scientist, without any career breaks. A break in your career can seriously impede your future progress. And yet the initial investment to train scientists is so high and so long, that it’s important to create more appropriate intersections for exit and reentry into research and academic careers.

Women scientists should be recognized as valuable resources for social good and flexible career pathways should be created which nurture their potential in the long-term.

Perceptions: Despite centuries of progress, gender bias against women scientists is still strong within academia and research institutions. Empirical research studies show that at every level, women face more challenges as they enter and try to make progress in every field of science. What makes this even worse, is that many young girls and women themselves have started to believe these negative stereotypes, and self select themselves out of science early on. This is even worse for women from ethnic minorities. Diversity is as much challenge for scientists in the developed and developing world, in different ways.

Recent research blames this on “The Parable of Talents,” where certain professors – gatekeepers within science and humanities – believe that only people who possess specific innate abilities for the subject can succeed. Hard work and discipline are not believed to contribute as much as the talent you’re born with. This gives easy justification for gender and race bias in science. And it has been shown to exclude women and black people from careers in STEM, across the academic spectrum, because they are stereotyped as not possessing such talent.

If that is the case, it suggests that a cultural shift in schools and universities is needed, playing down talent and emphasizing hard work, in order to enhance inclusion.

We need the courage to challenge our own assumptions and those of our societies about women and minorities in science.

Finance: In high profile, big budget projects male scientists are usually more prominently featured. Examples include space research, genomics etc. Science research projects are designed through a strategic science policy process, and implementation pathways are often in the hands of finance and business experts, alongside the technical specialists. Women are not as prominent at these inception or upstream phases of work. Their absence makes a difference in the long-term, because this is where the big picture for projects is conceived and resources allocated to support specific lines of inquiry. Women scientists generally become more visible at the downstream phases of work, where less decision-making power lies.

Women scientists should advocate for more control over project design and budget control of the projects, which they are working on.

WWQ: What is the most serious threat the world faces?

SO: Waste. I believe that this is the Anthropocene Age, where humanity has an irreversible impact upon the earth. But the legacy that we are leaving behind is now covered up by all our waste. All our good is masked by the detritus of human life above all else. It is simply clogging up every part of our earth system – water, air, land and sea. It is also polluting our minds, because we are so ravenous in our consumption and so careless in our waste production and management. We have “wasteful” minds. Rich, developed countries in the West that are surrounded by excess, have slowly changed how they value things, people and even their own societies over time.

This mindset of plenty is also fuelling incredible inequality – inequalities of income, access, opportunities, etc. The gap between rich and poor is reaching new heights, and in a world where we are more visible to each other, it also fuels crime, spiralling economic migration and conflict. In Africa, we are faced with the rise of terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram – which recruits young people who are easily indoctrinated because they have lost hope in the status quo in East Africa and Nigeria. But they are simply a subset of global terrorist groups, who prey of those who are increasingly renouncing all we have built for the good of humanity and laying waste to our way of life.

And yet, this is the first time in the history of humankind that we have enough food to feed everyone in the planet – but still people die of hunger daily.

We have more than enough weapons to annihilate humanity many times over, and yet governments continue to invest a major proportion of our annual national budgets on arms and defense.

We have more knowledge generated now than at any other time in world history, from the beginning of time. And yet we cannot find solutions to meet basic human needs and choose to hold on to our ignorance as an excuse to destroy one another.

We have so so much and yet so little, of everything.

Describe yourself in three words.

SO: Adaptive, creative, contemplative.

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