Breaking the glass ceiling in medical academia

prof lukoye atwoli, academia, medics

Prof Lukoye Atwoli, the first home-grown doctor to earn the title Associate Professor below the age of 40. 

Photo credit: FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The professors have been few and far apart in the field of medicine, and generally they have tended to be much older in age.
  • Additionally, many highly regarded senior lecturers have retired without the prestigious title!

The growth of these training institutions has been remarkable over the past decade, with the schools not only increasing the training capacity but also bringing in a lot of innovation around the training of doctors at both general and specialised levels.

The growth of the schools is a window into the growth of academia in the medical field. Back in my years at the undergraduate medical school in Moi University, we only had six professors out of a total complement of over 50 academic staff. Of these, four were foreign nationals, recruited as expatriate highly skilled professionals in a field that had a gross shortage of high-level academic staff. All these professors were already beyond their fifth decade in life!  Over the years, this situation may have changed but not fast enough. The Kenya Universities Act (2012) defines an academic staff as a person appointed to teach, train or conduct research. The universities have a free hand in deciding the criteria for awarding of the ranking of associate professor and professor. In the other fields, these persons would be PhD holders.

 In the field of Medicine, however, PhDs were few and far apart. Most PhD holders were focused on research and they weren’t the most visible doctors in the public eye. The highly specialised best renowned doctors hold fellowships instead. This is a highly specialised training in their area of expertise, to improve their knowledge and skills in providing care to their patients.

To attain the prestigious title of associate professor, one would generally hold a fellowship, coupled with research publications in renowned international journals and provision of research supervision to students. Thereafter, they would continue to serve for a number of years, as lecturers, practitioners, supervisors and researchers, in order to attain the elusive professor title.

As you can imagine, this journey is not easy. The professors have been few and far apart in the field of medicine, and generally they have tended to be much older in age. Additionally, many highly regarded senior lecturers have retired without the prestigious title!

This hasn’t been very encouraging for the emerging crop of young doctors in the profession! The glass ceiling has remained rather high, with very few individuals making the cut. Such was the case until a few years ago when a number of young and highly motivated doctors decided to smash that ceiling like never before. They determined a whole new pace and set new standards in academia, a breath of fresh air and youth.

Meet Prof Lukoye Atwoli, first homegrown doctor to earn the title Associate Professor below the age of 40. Prof  holds an MB.Ch.B from Moi University, M.MED (Psychiatry) from University of Nairobi and a PhD form the University of Cape Town. The young Professor has already earned his stripes, having been the Dean, School of Medicine, at his Alma Mata, Moi University. He is the current Dean, The Aga Khan University Medical College, East Africa!

Closely at his heels is Prof Moses Madadi Obimbo, another product of our local university system, currently heading the department of Human Anatomy at the University of Nairobi! Prof Obimbo holds an MB.Ch.B from Moi University, MSc in Human Anatomy, M.MED (Obstetrics & Gynaecology), PhD Human Anatomy. Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Global Health and Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Preterm Birth Initiative. What a mouthful of accolades for such a young person! All these achieved before his 40th birthday.

Dr Ambrose Agweyu is a trail-blazing researcher at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri). He may not teach in Kenya but is an Adjunct Professor, Stanford University! He is certainly heavily decorated academically, an MB.Ch.B from University of Nairobi, BSc in Physiology from University of Nairobi, MSc in Epidemiology from University of London, M.MED (Paediatrics and Child Health) from University of Nairobi, and a PhD in Epidemiology from University of Warwick. Again, all before setting foot on fourth floor!

Ladies haven’t been left behind either. Dr Eleanor Ochodo Opondo lights the path for the female doctors in this line. An Associate Professor in Stellenbosch University and a senior researcher at Kemri, her accolades are no mean feat. She holds an MB.Ch.B from the University of Nairobi, MIH in International Health from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a PhD in Clinical Epidemiology from University of Amsterdam. All these added to her crown in her 30s!

It takes doing things in an extraordinary way to bring about change. These four don’t make the complete list but they have demonstrated that age is no barrier to academic achievement. They are true icons setting the pace for our young and upcoming doctors in search of academic advancement. It is possible, it is achievable, it is within reach!

Dr Bosire is an obstetrician/gynaecologist

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