What you need to know:
- Prof Catherine Ngila recently won the 23rd International Prize for Women in Science for “introducing, developing and applying nanotechnology-based analytical methods to monitor water pollutants.”
- Her innovation is recognised to be indispensable in developing water resource management systems that are environmentally sustainable.
- She is the acting executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, a pan-African think tank organisation on Science, Technology and Innovation.
If you are ever interested in finding out more about the water you drink, then Prof Catherine Ngila, a distinguished scholar in analytical and environmental chemistry can be of help.
The 60-year-old recently won the 23rd International Prize for Women in Science for “introducing, developing and applying nanotechnology-based analytical methods to monitor water pollutants.”
She was among the five eminent women scientists in the fields of astrophysics, mathematics, chemistry and informatics to earn the award.
The prize that includes a monetary award of €100,000(Sh13 million) was awarded by Fondation L’Oréal and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Her innovation is recognised to be indispensable in developing water resource management systems that are environmentally sustainable.
Prof. Ngila is the acting executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, a pan-African think tank organisation on Science, Technology and Innovation.
As a professor of analytical and environmental chemistry, she deals with analysing the ‘health’ of water, soil and air. In water, for instance, she will establish the concentration of heavy metals like lead as well as pesticides.
Her expertise also stretches to forensics, and she can analyse the fingerprints of a person implicated in a crime. That is not all! She can also do a blood test to tell the condition of a person.
She got her doctorate from University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and worked at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa for six years before returning to Kenya in April, 2017.
The intrigues of how the rural girl born and brought up in Kitui County, ended up in this precise field captures the mind.
While in Class Six and Seven, her mathematics teacher could not take any exception from his pupils apart from each excelling in the subject. A thorough corporal punishment could follow any one who failed. So, she was scared. But out of that fear, she began to love the subject and by the power of the love, she did well.
She then joined high school. She found herself inclined to science subjects that marry well with math, particularly, chemistry. And on this one, she remembers Mr James Mackenzi, her Form Three Chemistry teacher, who made her heart jump with admiration and aspiration in every single lesson.
“Oh my God! He had a way of teaching Chemistry. He demonstrated with this body how molecules move and I enjoyed that,” she says.
“He could close his eyes and demonstrate how this works. And I got so mesmerised. While asleep, I could visualise how he taught and I became so obsessed with passing chemistry and becoming like him.”
She carried on the foundation of the training to Lugulu Girls High School in Bungoma County, where she ended up being the only ‘A’ level student out of a class of 40, to score a principal in chemistry.
Her transition to university was equally thought-provoking. All, she knew was that she had to pursue a course anchored in chemistry. She had two options: Pharmacy and dentistry.
She was, however, forced to drop pharmacy. Her cluster points could not match or exceed entry points. She then explored the idea of becoming a dentist. But then, she felt she was not cut out for it.
Eventually, she settled for a Bachelor of Education in Science (chemistry as her major) at Kenyatta University College (now Kenyatta University).
Her father was her hero and anchor supporter.
He was exposed to educated people. He served as a chief of Changwithya Location in Kitui Central during the British administration. He also worked as an interpreter.
She says he prioritised education for all his children. He wanted his daughters to be career women like the ones he had interacted with in the course of his duties.
“But my father could tell us that ‘Oh, I want you to do well because when you get a degree, you will be married to doctor.’ So for him, you had to be an educated wife,” says Prof. Ngila whose mother died when she was a child.
“My father was so proud when I passed to join the ‘A’ levels. In the letters he sent me, he could address me as Mr Catherine. That meant he gave me respect. He could brag about me wherever he went. That motivated me to continue doing well,” adds Prof Ngila whose push for excellence was also nurtured by his regular visits to his elder siblings in Nairobi.
Crème de la crème
She also desired to work and live in Nairobi just like them and knew “education was the only thing to help me work in Nairobi.”
She observes that the ‘how’ subjects are taught can encourage or discourage girls from pursuing courses related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).
Above all, girls have to shed off the mentality that Stem-related subjects are hard to crack, she advises. Instead, they should resolve to be among the crème de la crème.
The African Academy of Sciences currently constitutes about 500 fellows including experienced academicians, researchers and scientists in Stem and social sciences, drawn from 55 countries in the African continent.
The process of joining the academy tells of the seriousness of the institution. One can only become a fellow through nomination of a member. Then his or her credentials are thoroughly scrutinised before the fellows approve the request for membership.
In her acting capacity, Prof Ngila’s oversees day-to-day management of the academy, nominations of fresh fellows and giving strategic leadership to members to ensure they effectively serve their role as a think-tank on sustainable development in Africa.
Crucially pivotal in a woman’s career progression is the male support, she says.
She exemplifies how this works through her experience: “In 2016, I was the best woman researcher in South Africa. And it is a man who was my collaborator, who encouraged me to apply. At first, I was reluctant. I remember asking him “Do you think I qualify?” And he said “Yes, Catherine you qualify.” He had to tell me so three times for me to believe that I qualified for the award.”
Funding for research
Prof Ngila had just spent a year at Riara University as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs, when the academy’s governing council requested her to take over leadership in acting capacity.
At the time, she had already been nominated to the governing council to serve as a member representing Kenya.
On levels of Stem training, she says, Kenya is still behind South Africa.
In her comparison, Kenyans measure up as hardworking individuals. But lack of infrastructure and funding for research, works against them.
“South Africa’s education system is hands-on. They have the infrastructure and the Stem students can do their practicals; this makes them stand out,” she says.
“Here in Kenya we have beautiful buildings but there is nothing inside. We have to invest in Stem equipment to enable students get the tangible skills.
She adds: “Students who also want to do research are well funded. In fact, it is not a problem for a Master or PhD student to do research because National Research Foundation will give you grants. And universities too, have got grants,” she adds.
Prof Ngila’s teaching and research career started in 1989 when she was employed as a tutorial fellow at Kenyatta University and later promoted to lecturer position in 1996 after obtaining her doctorate degree.
Between1998 and 2006, she worked at the University of Botswana as a lecturer and senior lecturer. Thereafter, she worked for five years at University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, as senior lecturer.
In April 2011, she entered University of Johannesburg, as a full professor of analytical and environmental chemistry.
There is one place you will not miss to find her during her free time. At her living room, sitting on the couch and holding onto a remote control sifting through the channels.
The scholar confesses to be an addict of television. She loves watching movies, news and soap operas. In fact ‘Maria’ that airs on Citizen TV is one of her favourites.
Out of the screens, the mother to a grown-up son, immerses herself in biographies and publications on management, entrepreneurship and innovations.
On giving back to the community, she runs a Prof Ngila Award for Physical Sciences, through which she mobilises resources to educate underprivileged but bright girls enrolled in related courses. She is also part of the Unesco Stem team and they mentor girls.
To succeed in Stem, she says, “One has to have an interest and passion for the choice of the career.”