Careers, Dissemination

Advance Kenyan science – seize opportunities to collaborate

From Nature Careers

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Some Kenyans have a tendency to equate quietness with being nice, says analytical environmental chemist Veronica Okello at Machakos University in Kenya. She urges young researchers to be less timid, air their views and approach their professors for professional opportunities.

I was a part-time lecturer at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakamega, Kenya, when I was offered a PhD fellowship at Binghamton University in New York in 2008. By then, I was married, with two boys, aged 3 and 5.

My husband and my late mother were so supportive. They said, “You go. We’re going to help you.” Every summer, my husband came to the United States with the children, and every Christmas he sent my ticket to visit home. He sent money for my car and apartment, and called every day: if it was 7 p.m., my fellow graduate students knew who was calling when my phone rang. I returned to Kenya in December 2014 and became a lecturer at Machakos University in February 2015. I teach undergraduate and graduate students analytical and environmental chemistry and the fundamentals of nanotechnology. I founded the Go Green Chemistry Club for students; club members plant trees and do environmental clean-ups and science projects.

My research focuses on developing green, sustainable approaches to clean up heavy metals, such as chromium, arsenic and lead, that pollute the environment. For example, chromium-6 is a carcinogen, but chromium-3 is benign, so we are looking for environmentally friendly compounds that can reduce chromium-6 to chromium-3.

Doing research after returning to Kenya has been challenging. I had many more publications on my CV during my PhD programme than in the time after it. But collaboration has done wonders. I have relied on my US network to help me win six grants to adequately equip our laboratory from scratch. Collaborating with established professors here and at other universities in Kenya has also helped me. A group of lecturers, hired at my university between 2015 and 2018, write grants together to buy equipment for research and teaching.

I tell young female researchers in Kenya that there are many opportunities — but you have to step out of your comfort zone and look for them. They will not come to you. You have to put in the work.

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