Women in Research: Lucy Ombaka from Kenya

Lucy is Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Credit: Lucy Ombaka

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Online Science Days 2020/70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Lucy from Kenya is an Georg Forster Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation based at Leibniz University Hannover, Germany.

Her research targets facile techniques of developing economical and efficient semiconductor-based catalytic systems for solar-driven hydrogen fuel production as an alternative to fossil fuel. To achieve this, she modifies earth abundant and inexpensive metal oxides applicable as photocatalysts.

Lucy will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2021.

Enjoy the interview with Lucy and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/Chemistry?

I would say the natural love for Mathematics, though I ended up being a chemist. I remember one particular incident that occurred when I was about 5 years old. My father was teaching my elder siblings simple multiplication procedures and I too wanted to learn; but my father was not willing to teach me as he thought I was too young to understand this concept. So I keenly listened to the instructions as he taught my elders and tried the given examples, he and my mum were surprised when I got the examples correct. From then onwards my mother noticed that I was science oriented and she ensured I stayed on the science path. At elementary school, I loved sciences more than art-based subjects; so upon joining high school; I quickly settled for sciences with Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry being my favorite subjects. I viewed Chemistry as a cool subject where we conduct colorful experiments such as the test for ions. I was fascinated with these tests and titration experiments, especially watching the meniscus of the liquid to ensure its accuracy in a burette. Upon joining the university, I comfortably choose chemistry as it was a practical course that offered me the opportunity to invent new industrial products. I guess the view of Chemistry as a tool for developing industrial products that can address current socio-economic issues still motivates me to work hard on my chemistry career.

Who are your role models?

My first role model is my mother; she too loves science and always encouraged logical reasoning and critical thinking with application of simple scientific facts in everyday life. I still remember how she explained the concept of germs infecting the food we eat-she has a natural love for sciences that is infectious. My PhD supervisor Prof. Vincent Nyamori is also an icon in my career as he has a successful research career in nanotechnology and its application in Chemistry. More recently, my research host here in Germany, Prof. Detlef Bahnemann, who is a well-known photo chemist also inspires me. Of course, the late Wangari Mathai -a Nobel Laureate – is still my role model, standing against difficult regimes to protect our environment. Marie Curie is also one of my role models due to her outstanding contribution towards radioactive elements.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The wise men said that Rome was not built in a day; the same applies to my career. I attained elementary education in an average school and worked very hard to secure a position at The Kenya High School, which is one of the

Lucy is doing her research in Hannover. Credit: Lucy Ombaka

best high schools in Kenya. Attending this school was a game changer as we learned life principles that shaped my thinking and career path. At the end of high school education, I was certain that I wanted to pursue a Chemistry career but was disappointed when I did not qualify for my choice course-chemical engineering. Therefore, I settled for a Bachelor in Education Science degree (Chemistry and Mathematics) at Egerton University, Kenya. During my bachelors studies I practiced teaching at high schools and obtained some experience, which motivated me to further my education in Chemistry so that I could conduct research at a more advanced level and mentor younger women in the field of Chemistry. Thereafter, I obtained an MSc in Chemistry from Egerton University then got a scholarship from the South African government to conduct a PhD at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban South Africa. During this period, I met and watched my PhD supervisor Professor: Vincent Nyamori passionately conduct research and establish collaborations with other researchers. Under his guidance, my research career blossomed took a turn towards nanotechnology and its application in Chemistry. Following the successful completion of my PhD, I went back to Kenya, and secured a lecturing position at Dedan Kimathi University and later joined the Technical University of Kenya in the year 2017.

In a number of Kenyan institutions, not much research in sciences such as Chemistry is conducted. Therefore, I desire to establish a research laboratory at my workstation. To achieve this I applied for several postdoctoral fellowship and amongst those awarded was the Alexander von Humboldt Georg Forster Postdoctoral Research Fellowship which I am currently undertaking. Under the guidance of Dr. Daniela Kneissl, one of my role models and Prof. Detlef Bahnemann, I have made several milestones in my career path and I have been granted the opportunity to share my research experience with others. One huddle however stands out in my career path and that is overcoming socioeconomic setbacks. Coming from a developing country, getting funds to conduct research or advance my studies has always been a challenge, but with diligence and determination, I am able to secure relevant scholarships. With the scholarship comes the hassle of separation from family and familiar locality, so I always view every scholarship to a foreign country as an opportunity to learn about a different culture and gain important research experience. When I am tired and homesick, I remind myself of a famous African saying… “the roots of education are bitter; sometimes too bitter; BUT the fruits are sweet” so I keep moving.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Generally, Chemistry projects are cool, not just, because they are colorful but also because they can be transformed into products that can change life. I enjoy all the projects conducted along my research career, but I am especially fascinated by my current project that focuses on the production of affordable hydrogen fuel as an alternative to fossil fuel. The success of this project can contribute towards an important product that can in turn minimize pollution albeit to a small extent. This project also gives me the foundation needed to establish a research lab and possible links between lab-scale research and small-scale industries in Kenya.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Women, more sore those from developing countries like Kenya have to overcome so many barriers-both economic and social-to advance in a science career. Therefore, I take pride in every huddle I overcame towards advancing my career. I am jubilant of all admissions and awarded fellowships, starting from securing an admission at The Kenya High School to being awarded the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt fellowship – the ultimate cherry on the cake. I also take great pride in the invitation to share my German research experience at the Alexander von Humboldt Annual Meeting. Of course, I am thrilled of my nomination by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and learn from Nobel Laureate, this I never expected as I left Kenya for Germany, and I hope to create meaningful links that will also benefit others.

Lucy with her little son. Credit: Lucy Ombaka

What is a “day in the life” of Lucy like?

Here in Germany I double up as a postdoctoral fellow and a single mum to my 3-year-old son. To maintain my sanity away from family and social support (and I say this on a light note) I choose to do only things that are essential to both of us. My routine usually involves dropping my son at the kindergarten in the morning, then taking a train to work and making the best of every minute at work, then I pick my son from the kindergarten and go play with him until bedtime. On a good day, I might have a few minutes to virtually catch up with friends, but in most cases the friends are the little children on the playground or their parents. Though demanding, I have achieved a lot career wise and experienced good life in Germany. Looking back, I am pleased that I dared to come to Germany and experience research.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I hope to establish a research laboratory that disseminates useful products or processes to small-scale traders such as women self-help groups in Kenya. The success of such a research laboratory will not only be important for my career but will also provide upcoming researchers in my locality the opportunity to advance their science career and network with established researchers worldwide. Additionally developing a product that can be used by locals to boost daily income will be a great achievement.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I am not doing research I like to swim, play tennis, jog, take a walk, watch a movie, go cycling, dance or read a book. But the truth is there is only one thing I seem to do: take care of my son, then take care of him again and when I am not taking care of him … guess what I do, I take care of him. I play with him on the playground, put him on his scooter and try jogging for as long as he is willing to scoot, take him swimming on some days, accompany him to music classes, a bit of gardening on sunny days and since we are Christians, go to church on Sundays.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/Chemistry?

Those who were before us paid a heavy price to pave the way of science for us. Now we have more opportunities available for women in science and more platforms to make our voices heard. The ball is now in our courts; in whichever capacity let us do our best to leave the field of science a better place for the women of tomorrow.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?

In these unprecedented times, developing a vaccine against Covid-19 seems a rational scientific break-through. In my research area, the sustainable production of affordable hydrogen fuel (in place of fossil fuel) using renewable resources such as sunlight and water will be a major breakthrough that will revolutionize the energy sector.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

In my opinion, mentorship of potential female chemists by established female researchers is vital towards increasing the number of female professors. This will allow the upcoming chemists to learn both scientific and life principles required for a successful career in Chemistry. In addition, early career identification may boost the number of female scientists, as some women do not get appropriate motivation at the early stages of life to guide them towards a science career path.

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools to image, probe and manipulate biological structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.

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