Average KCPE scorer shoots to aerospace fame in UK at only 28

Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich. She is one of the top PhD scholars in aerospace engineering science globally.

What you need to know:

  • Gladys Chepkirui was enrolled in a little known local secondary school but she ended up among top scholars in the world’s best universities
  • Unlike in the Kenyan education system, Chepkirui did not have to go through a master’s programme.
  • As a Fellow, Chepkirui is undertaking a year-long postdoctoral placement at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

When Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich boarded a plane on September 28 2015 to the United Kingdom, it was her second flight outside of Kenya. Her first ever flight was two years earlier when she travelled to Norway to attend the International Student Festival in Trondheim.

There is nothing special about flying but that flight acquires significance when Chepkirui’s achievements in the four years she spent in the UK are put into perspective.

Her maiden trip to the UK was to join the prestigious University of Oxford for her doctor of philosophy (PhD) studies, on a Rhodes scholarship, upon her graduation from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

In her class at the Juja campus, she was one of the only nine girls studying mechanical engineering. She had a bias towards thermodynamics and graduated with a first class honours degree in 2015.

“After my undergraduate studies, I wanted to do a post-graduate degree. I wanted a thermodynamics project. The project I found at Oxford (thermofluids) is under the aerospace laboratory,” she told Nation Higher Education magazine during an exclusive interview at the mechanical engineering laboratory at JKUAT during a recent visit.

James Finlay scholarship

“I studied at JKUAT under a James Finlay scholarship. They had promised me that if I do very well, they would sponsor my master’s. I was pretty much settled because I knew where I’d get my master’s funding.”

She was introduced to the Rhodes Scholarship by a classmate who was looking for scholarships but when he came across it, he felt that he could not meet its rigorous requirements.

“For Rhodes, you must have and demonstrate three things: leadership, extra-curricular and academic excellence. For the University of Oxford to take you, you must pass very well. I was hesitant at first but I applied and the rest, as they say, is history,” she said.

Chepkirui was among the five shortlisted candidates. They were taken through two stages of interview; a pre-selection dinner and a formal interview. Renowned economist, David Ndii (a former Rhodes scholar, himself) was in the panel.

Unlike in the Kenyan education system, Chepkirui did not have to go through a master’s programme.

After submitting her transcripts to her supervisor and being taken through an interview, she was enrolled straight into the PhD programme at Oriel College, the fifth oldest of the University of Oxford’s constituent colleges. It was founded in 1326. She did her research work at Oxford Thermofluids Institute, which prides itself as one of the “most sophisticated turbine and high speed flow facilities in the UK”.

Jet engine cooling researcher

Three years after enrolling as a jet engine cooling researcher, Chepkirui registered a patent for an innovation arising from her research, in collaboration with Rolls-Royce Plc, one of the top makers of jet engines in the world. It is about an alternative double-wall aerofoil fabrication technique.

However, she cannot reveal much about the nature of the innovation since the patenting process is incomplete. “It’s been filed in the UK and in the US,” she said.

Her innovation is special as it reduces the amount of air required to cool jet engines that can reach temperatures of 2,000 °C. It also reduces the carbon dioxide emissions.

Chepkirui did not start life flying high and hobnobbing with the world’s top researchers at blue-chip companies famous for their engineering transcendence. Her journey to the top has not been rose-coloured but has been marked by what many would consider modest performance.

When she scored 298 marks out of 500 in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 2004, few would have expected her to go far, academically. Except her mother. That year, the top candidate nationally was from Nairobi and had 472 marks.

Chepkirui was admitted into a local secondary school but her mother knew her daughter’s potential and set about searching for a school that would offer her a more challenging environment. A number of schools rejected her before she was admitted to Mercy Girls Secondary School in Kipkelion, Kericho County.

“My performance didn’t affect me because I didn’t even know what that meant. I was just a normal child,” she says, adding that her mother would punish her for playing instead of revising for her last KCPE paper.

Worked hard

At Mercy Girls, she worked hard and when she sat her KCSE, she emerged the top candidate in Kipkelion Constituency, having scored an A- that earned her the James Finlay scholarship. And that marked the beginning of her success.

Last year, she won one of the most coveted fellowships in the world; the Schmidt Science Fellows. Of the 20 students selected from globally acclaimed universities this year, only two are from Africa.

Indeed, her teachers at Lelaibei Primary School in the Mau area of Nakuru County must now be pleasantly surprised to learn that Chepkirui, who obtained modest marks in KCPE, has scaled academic heights.

Chepkirui earned her PhD last year at only 28 years! Schmidt Science Fellows “look for the brightest minds in the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computing who are interested in broadening their horizons.”

According to their website: “Schmidt Science Fellows, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, aims to develop the next generation of science leaders to transcend disciplines, advance discovery, and solve the world’s most pressing problems.”

As a Fellow, Chepkirui is undertaking a year-long postdoctoral placement at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

“They encourage PhD students to move out of their comfort zones and try something different from what they’re used to. I’ve had to step aside (from heat transfer and cooling for jet engines) and try something different,” she explained.

If the fellows like their new area of study, they can stay on and receive full funding to advance their research. However, if it does not fascinate them, they can go back to their earlier research interests. Chepkirui’s new area of study space technologies to support Sustainable Development Goals.

Space designs

Her research group is working on how to use space designs and space science to either directly address or monitor the progress of SDGs, for example, satellites in space to connect rural schools to the Internet. She intends to, specifically, research on rocket fuel that is used to propel satellites into space and keep them there.

She acknowledges that studying in the UK opened up her worldview. One thing that stands out for her is the collaboration between the universities and industry, something rare in Kenya.

“My research work with Rolls-Royce was on a live project, not abstract stuff. I wasn’t just doing it to score an A or for my thesis but to improve the next jet engine. I designed something and then I was talking to my professor and he just said, ‘Wow! Gladys, no one has thought about this before’,” she said, explaining how her innovation came about.

In 2018, Chepkirui was named as one of the ‘UK Top 10 Rare Rising Stars’ of 2018, an award that celebrates the academic achievements of the UK’s 10 best African and Caribbean students. The award is sponsored by Latham & Watkins (a top American law firm), the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

For both Schmidt and the Rare Rising Star awards, Chepkirui attributes her selection to her excellence in academics as an aerospace engineer as well as her exploits on the athletics track and leadership record.

While at JKUAT, her favourite races were the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in which she competed at the East African universities games and won 3 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals. She also made it to the Team Kenya national trials in 2013 but did not make the cut against Kenya’s famed elite athletes. At Oxford, she switched to the faster 400 metres hurdles race.

“My proudest moment was when I ran 64:67 to get the Blues record (an honour given to any athlete who dips below 65 seconds in the event at the university),” she said.

Leadership skills

Chepkirui honed her leadership skills early as a class monitor in primary school before being appointed sports captain in secondary school. At JKUAT, she was a class representative for five years. She also served as student technical team liaison at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference for one year.

“I like organising people, putting things in order and taking charge,” Chepkirui said.

Though unsure of what the future holds for her, Chepkirui foresees a role in leadership in science either in academia or in the industry.

“Now that I’m a Schmidt Fellow, they are intentionally brushing us to be fine science leaders. I can see myself leading engineering or science innovations somewhere,” she says.

Chepkirui’s wish is for more girls and women to be granted opportunities to better their lives.

“When I look back seven or 10 years, I didn’t know I’d join JKUAT. Rhodes wasn’t in the books and Oxford would only have been a dream. I know there are many women and girls in the villages crying for a fraction of what I have. That humbles me,” her tone changes as she says this.

According to her, many girls from her village are married off after their primary or secondary school education, sometimes against their will.

“Thinking about that makes me want to utilise the opportunities that come my way.”

To contribute improving the lives of girls, she co-founded a non-governmental organisation called Iluu that is based in Nairobi. The organisation focuses on promoting girls’ education, sexual and reproductive health awareness and mentorship.