This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).
Ajibola from Nigeria is a chemistry lecturer at the Redeemer’s University Ede, Osun State, Nigeria. Her research is focused on the facile synthesis of sustainable visible-light-assisted bifunctional photocatalysts from cheap sources for the degradation of contaminants in wastewater. This also covers the development of techniques for the generation of clean energy. To achieve this, Ajobola modifies inexpensive semiconductors and metal oxides with biomass waste and kaolinite that are abundant in the environment. It also serves to convert waste to wealth because the plantain peel and papaya seeds are disposed of in the environment after eating the fruits. The bandgap of the photocatalyst was engineered toward the visible region so the sunlight and solar light could be utilised, reducing the cost.
Ajibola will participate in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Ajibola and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
Growing up as a young female child in Sub-Sahara Africa, I had always been passionate about becoming a scientist since high school when we were taught about great scientific innovations, especially Marie Curie’s work; this spurred my interest. Chemistry and Physics became my best classes because I could experiment with things I was taught and learned. Furthermore, the hope to use science as a tool to solve some of the problems of my immediate environment and the world was also a driving force for me.
Who are your role models?
My parents are my first role models; they gave me the freedom to study what I wanted, taught me what they knew, and always supported and encouraged me in every decision I made. They went out of their way to train me to where I am today.
Also, every woman who has broken the bias and done things differently, paving the way for the younger generations, is my role model.
Furthermore, I have been blessed with different role models in science and other fields at various stages in life and in my career:
My master’s and Ph.D. supervisor Prof. Emmanuel Unuabonah is one of the people without whom my scientific career story won’t be complete. He has a successful career in water and wastewater treatment with sustainable materials. He trained me and guided me during my studies.
All my scientific hosts for the different fellowships I was awarded were women: Dr. Roshila Moodley, Prof. Eny Maria Vieira, and Prof. Antonella Glisenti. They are all great women in science and became my role models.
Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, the Vice-chancellor of the University of Capetown, is a great role model to me; she is doing beautiful things and changing the stereotype, as a woman holding such a position is motivating
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I chose to study Industrial Chemistry in college because I was fascinated by the course in high school when we were being taught about the different career prospects in chemistry. After my bachelor’s degree, I served my country for a year (a compulsory internship for all graduates in my country). Then I proceeded for my master’s in environmental and analytical chemistry at Redeemer’s University, and this is where my career started. During my program, I had the opportunity to visit the Vaal’s University of Technology in South Africa as an exchange student in 2015 to carry out some part of my research at the laboratory of the late Prof. Augustine Ofomaja. The exchange trip exposed me to a lot of training and techniques, which helped to complete my master’s research work.
I started my Ph.D. immediately after my master’s program under the same supervisor, Prof. Emmanuel Unuabonah, and focused on the degradation of steroid estrogens in water using sustainable metal-doped functional photocatalyst. I was the first Ph.D. student Prof Emmanuel had, and photocatalysis was a new area. My 1st and 2nd years were filled with ups and downs, I experimented a lot and applied for different research fellowships to facilitate my work, but none of them was successful.
This period was a tough one for me. I was stretched and sometimes contemplated giving up, but my parents and some mentors encouraged me, and I told myself that quitting was never an option. I had the opportunity to attend a science capacity-building workshop organised by the Nigerian Young Academy for women in sciences, where Prof. Adenike Adeyemo gave a presentation sharing her background and how she was able to become successful. This stroke a chord in me that I could do it; I could break the bias and ignore the voice saying I cannot do it.
In my 3rd year, I applied again for research fellowships, and I was awarded a short research stay fellowship by the African-German Network for Excellence in Science (AGNES) to do my research at the School of Chemistry and Physics at the University of KwaZulu Natal in the laboratory of Dr. Roshila Moodley. I learned how to operate different instruments, and I was able to do my work and collaborate with great minds.
Shortly after, I was awarded the prestigious TWAS-CNPq postgraduate research fellowship for 12 months at the Institute of Chemistry at the University of Sao-Paulo, Sao Carlos, Brazil, in the laboratory of Prof Eny Maria Vieira. The experience was great. I was able to conclude my Ph.D. research and collaborate with outstanding researchers in various scientific fields. Prof. Eny Maria Vieira supported me and gave me a free hand in the laboratory. Prof. Eckert Helmut and Prof. Andrea de Camargo in the Institute of Physics helped with some significant characterization and constructively criticised my work, making it better. I also applied and was awarded the TWAS-BioVision.Nxt Fellowship to present my work at the Alexandria Bibliotheca in Egypt.
On my return to my institution in Nigeria, I was offered a teaching assistant position by the Department of Chemical Sciences, where I was settled with the responsibilities of teaching and demonstrating various chemistry practicals in the undergraduate laboratory. This made me fall in love with academia; imparting knowledge to the coming generation.
February 2021, I defended my Ph.D. thesis; this moment was very emotional for me; I could not believe I was finally at that stage. I was always anticipating, and I was proud of myself. I knew that was the beginning, and I had to keep the candle burning. I applied for a series of postdoc opportunities, some I could not complete as the problem of securing a host is inevitable. I was awarded the Coimbra Group Scholarship for young professors from Sub-Sahara Africa at the University of Padova, Italy, in the laboratory of Prof. Antonella Glisenti. I also got a permanent position as a lecturer at my institution shortly after my Ph.D. defense.
At Prof. Antonella’s laboratory, I was introduced to a new research area than I was familiar with. She trained me and took her time to personally explain and break down all the questions I had on energy conversion and clean energy generation. She encouraged me as a young female scientist to never give up and always have a positive mindset in all I do.
Last year I was nominated by the world academy for science to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. The first time I heard about this meeting was in 2016 from a colleague who applied for it. When I saw the nomination email, I felt really proud, and it encouraged me a lot because I never in my imagination thought I would ever attend. I got so emotional that I was able to be part of the 600 young scientists selected to attend the prestigious meeting of noble scientists and interact with some of the laureates is an outstanding opportunity that I cried.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My Ph.D. project titled “Tuning ZnO/GO and Fe2O3/GO heterostructures with carbon interlayer supported on clay for visible-light catalysis: Removal of steroid estrogens from water”.
The project took an interdisciplinary approach which captivated me as it was full of opportunities to learn different skills outside of my scope. The project involved the facile synthesis of different function visible-light photocatalysts. The design was to introduce graphene oxide on the surface of metallic doped nanoparticles. We characterised the photocatalyst using different techniques and tested the efficiency of the degradation of steroid estrogen in both simulated and natural wastewater. In collaboration with Prof. Eny Maria Vieira and Dr. Dayana Moscardi dos Santos, we conducted the acute toxicity test of the treated effluent on the water flea Cerio daphnia silvestrii spp. This project enlightened me on so many levels. In the end, two articles were published in reputable journals with good impact factors. This remains my best project because it addressed the problem of water pollution and scarcity in my country (Nigeria) and the world and it serves as a key solution to the current problem encountered in wastewater purification in most countries, providing new water treatment techniques and attaining the sustainable development goal (SDG 6).
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I would say after my Ph.D. thesis defense. Finally, the day I always anticipated came and went, and I victoriously conquered it. I was pronounced a Dr. of philosophy in Industrial Chemistry, and I felt incredibly proud of myself and my work. The Ph.D. period had a lot of ups and downs, and it taught me never to give up and to always see every challenge as a key to the answer. Also, during the acceptance of my papers and when I was awarded fellowships, I felt proud of myself and my research.
What is a “day in the life” of Ajibola like?
I get up at 6 am, meditate a bit, and do some exercise. I have breakfast and then head to the university where I work. When I arrive at the university, I usually drink a cup of coffee or hot chocolate before starting work. Then I look through my schedule for the day, teach my classes, and in my free time in between the crazy schedule, I write manuscripts, apply for grants and fellowships, and try to fulfill my administrative responsibilities. On the days when I have a few classes, I plan an experiment. I start usually early and try to work smart in the lab so I can finish before the close of the day. I generally leave the university around 8 pm.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
One day I would like to become a Professor in Chemistry, have my research group and continue to do research, mentor, and pass on the knowledge acquired over the years to the young generation coming. I hope to become a Nobel Laureate in the future.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When I am not doing research, I am cooking or reading novels. I also like to go on adventures; Nature has a way of resetting my system.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
Do not think you cannot do it; you can do it, be focused and resilient. Change the narrative and take charge, it is a tough world for women in science, but you can break the bias and take control and conquer.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
The next breakthrough in science and my discipline is taking the work from the bench to the industry. Most research tends to end on the bench; we need to do better by upscaling and commercialising our research findings.