Science is not the strict domain of men and young women need to be shown that they too can succeed.
Growing up in a small village in Kenya, Esther Ngumbi experienced first hand, the full impact of insect pests and plant diseases on human beings. Ngumi recalls how, as a young girl she and other family members would work hard on the farm, every day, planting their best seed so that they can harvest food one day. “Then all over, sudden,” she said. “Insects and pests would attack our crops and all our hard work would be in vain.
The following months would be difficult for my family and me as well as neighbours.” It was out of the hardship experienced by her community in rural Kenya that her dream to be a scientist was born. Today, that little girl who grew up on a farm in Kenya graces the world stage where she is recognized as a leading professor in entomology. Ngumbi is a distinguished postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US. She was inducted into the US National Academy of Inventors after being granted three patents from her research. In 2018, she was honoured by the Society of Experimental Biology and the Presidential Medal from the government of Kenya. This year, she is scheduled to present the British Ecology Society Plenary lecture in December. “At an early age, I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to develop solutions for my family, our neighbors, the community and the country at large. “However, there is a twist. Growing up I did not have role models to look up to. The only people that I was exposed to at an early age were accountants. I still remember how I would go to the banks with my parents when they were collecting their paychecks to send us to school. “I still remember looking at the accountants – they would be sitting in nice chairs, dressed in suits and working in an air-conditioned room. I wanted to become an accountant,`’ she said. After completing high school as the best student, she enrolled for a BSc degree at the Kenyatta University. It was there that her love for science was ignited.
Ngumbi still remembers her first year as if it was yesterday. “I still remember my first Biochemistry lab. I very much enjoyed it and did not want to leave the lab. My first real science experience was magical. I enjoyed the process of science. Having a question, generating hypotheses, designing an experiment to test your hypothesis, doing experiments, getting results, analyzing them to see if your hypothesis is true. “The rest is history. Today, Science still fascinates me. I still love and enjoy the Science process, just as I did many years ago,” she said. She left the Kenyatta University with a Masters degree in science. Reflecting on her journey, Ngumbi lamented on the absence of role models. She also spoke about how she was intimidated in the early stages of her career. “There were always more men than females. Then when I moved to the States, I realised that there were fewer women of color scientists. At times, I wondered, why did I choose to pursue a career where there were not many of us? Nevertheless, the love for Science, the satisfaction I would get in Science kept me going.
Globally, according to UNESCO, women scientists make up less than 30 percent. “After finishing my Masters, I went to Israel and worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for 2 years. Once again, it felt strange to be a woman in science but I pushed on. After working for 2 years, I thought it was time to go for the ultimate –a Doctor of Philosophy in Science. “I looked back at where I had come from, how I did not have role models—yet, I could change this –and It was an easy decision. I decided to push on and pursue a Ph.D. degree. I did exactly that and on a beautiful summer day, August 5, 2011, I graduated with a Ph.D. in Entomology. It was the best day of my life. “I am also grateful to my parents and family for inspiring me to push on. They encouraged me to persist even when the challenges were daunting. They always stressed that they wanted to have a professor in the family. They are retired teachers and they did the best they could to support my journey and to inspire me to stay focused,” Ngumbi said. She does not forget her birthplace Mabafweni and everyday dreams of helping girls back home. “I still remember when I was walking on the stage to get my Ph.D. degree. My mind flashed back to Mabafweni. “I wondered at all those girls and then imagined—that if they had the opportunity and the encouragement that I was lucky to have along the way—they too could be like me. Then I told myself that I would do anything within my reach to provide for opportunities, so that young girls, especially from poor and rural communities, have opportunities so that they can break the barriers and go for the stars. “Give them the opportunities so that they can reach for their stars.
“Since then I have dedicated my life to encouraging girls and when I can provide opportunities and mentorship. “I see future scientists, medical doctors, and engineers. I see so much potential in them and all I can do is provide them with numerous opportunities so that they can discover their talents and then run with them. “I will continue to be there for all who would allow me to. I just want everyone to succeed and grow to achieve full potential.” Ngumbi said one of the best ways of increasing the number of women in science is to create more role models. She expanded: “We need more role models out there. I always say, you cannot be that what you do not see. We cannot just assume women would desire to be scientists if they never see other women scientists. Those of us who are already scientists should make it a priority to be there for women. We should reach out and go to schools and other institutions where girls are. We should be present and keep projecting the image that science is not reserved for men. That women can succeed in science. Your magazine featuring women scientists will also bring a positive message to women, showing that they too can make it.
Eye in the sky
African farmers now have the assistance of a pestcontrol system that uses satellites and computer models to warn them about potential pest problems. Farmers in sub-Saharan African nations such as Kenya, Ghana, and Zambia are already regularly using such a system, according the BBC — and soon, so could farmers in other parts of the world. The Pest Risk Information Service (PRISE), created by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International development charity (CABI), combines temperature and weather data provided by satellites with computer models to predict when pest outbreaks are most likely to occur. Should the system predict any problems it sends farmers a mobile phone alert giving them time to take the appropriate preventive measures to protect crops from infestations. The data is also fed to a network of on-the-ground “plant doctors” who assist farmers when pests of diseases ruin their crops. So far, the system has helped 18.3 million farmers in countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas. On average, farms using the service have seen incomes and yields increased by 13 percent.