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Women researchers in Nigeria are few, but some have made tremendous impact

Abdulsalam Mahmud, FASLN

Monday, 16 November 2020

In Nigeria's male dominated science 'arena', there are still women, who despite all odds, have made tremendous impact just as their male counterparts. Some of these great women, according to Mrs. Thecla O. Ayoka, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), include the highly-accomplished Prof. Grace Alele-Williams, a Professor of Mathematics, who was the first female Vice Chancellor (VC) of a University in Nigeria. Yet, the irrefutable fact is that their numbers are still few, not only in Nigeria, but in Africa, at large.

African women scientists few in STEM

According to an article published last year by Dr. Barbara Tiedeu, a don at the University of Yaounde, Cameroun, women scientists have a vital part to play in scientific leadership, and in contributing to Africa’s development and transformation. But they remain substantially under-represented in higher education and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Tiedeu, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry, disclosed that women account for 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates and 43% of PhD graduates. But they make up only 28% of researchers in all fields. And, only 30% of women in higher education move into STEM-related fields. The situation is no different in sub-Saharan Africa; in fact, in some countries in the region it’s worse. Only 30% of sub-Saharan researchers in all subject areas are women.

"Happily, there have been some improvements in recent years. Between 2011 and 2013, for instance, there was an increase in the percentage of women researchers in South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Cameroon and Ethiopia.

"But it is not all good news. Many women leave scientific research careers at a fairly junior level. Gender disparities persist in the scientific workforce, largely leaving women scientists in junior positions with little responsibility and power to make decisions, as well as limited leadership opportunities. The result is that scientific work is missing women’s perspectives and contributions. This weakens the science agenda," she said.

Addressing gender imbalance in science

Although, Nigeria has a low scientific publishing record, and only a small number of its researchers (23% in 2007) are women (according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics), it has taken steps to address the gender imbalance in science. Its Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, adopted in 2012, which is integrated in the country’s Vision 20:2020 Economic Transformation Blueprint, has an objective to mainstream women in science, technology and innovation (STI).

The policy, which provides incentives for women’s participation in science and strengthens the political and institutional framework to promote women’s participation in STI, also encourages the promotion of gender balance in STI disciplines and R&D institutions countrywide, and makes provisions for increasing women and girls’ access to STI, among other fundamental objectives.

Like Alele-Williams, like Okeke

Meanwhile, Prof. Alele-Williams is not the only 'female oasis' in Nigeria's 'desert of science'. There is also Prof. Nneka Okeke, a renowned Professor of Physics. She was awarded the prestigious 'L'Oreal-UNESCO women in science award' in 2013, which is in recognition of her contribution to the understanding of daily variations of the ion currents in the upper atmosphere.

Another person is Deborah Ajaikaye, a Professor of Physics, who was, in 1980, the first woman to be appointed a Professor of Physics in Nigeria. Her contributions to the field of Geophysics through her works on Geovisualization, according to Ayoka, have been significant in Nigeria's location of its abundant mineral resources.

UNESCO awardee, erudite Minister

What about Dr. Eucharia Oluchi Nwaichi, an environmental biochemist, soil scientist and toxicologist, who was made an international fellow at the 2013 L'Oreal-UNESCO awards? One cannot easily forget Prof. Viola Onwuliri.

Onwuliri is a Professor of Biochemistry, with speciality in Tropical diseases and HIV/AIDS. She has authored and co-authored numerous books and book chapters on General Biochemistry and Chemistry. She has published over 70 scholarly articles on national and international journals. She has also served as Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Minister, Minister of State for Education and Commissioner of Education in Imo State.

Dearth of Nigerian female researchers

The list may be endless, nonetheless, Ayoka, who is a natural product researcher at UNN, maintained that there are insufficient women scientists and researchers in Nigeria. “They make up only about 17 percent (not official record) of science researchers. Despite this, their few are still contributing to national development," she said.

In an interview with this reporter, Ayoka, a Fellow of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN), asserted that, “Mentoring young girls in secondary schools to become good scientists, providing them with invaluable advice on how to manage the demands of a challenging professional career, and at the same time, maintaining work/life balance, cannot be overemphasized. They should be empowered with the right mindset."

Meditating on Beach

Thecla O. Ayoka

Covid 19

Passion for lecturing

The ASLN Fellow, who teaches in the Department of Science Laboratory Technology at UNN's Faculty of Physical Sciences, revealed that her passion for lecturing started in secondary school, as a young girl.

"I involved myself in teaching students Mathematics and the basic sciences. After completing my secondary education, I came out tops in my school, both in the internal examinations and the West African School Certificate Examinations (WASCE) results. I gained admission to study Biochemistry in 1998, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, where I graduated with B.Sc (Hons) in Biochemistry in 2002. Between 2003 and 2004, I did the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) service programme in Ekiti State.

"I served at the Ekiti State Women Development Center, Igede-Ekiti, where I taught Chemistry at both Secondary school level and Diploma level. During my service year, I distinguished myself both in the Ministry of Women Affairs and the local community. I organised seminars on HIV/AIDS for secondary school students in Igede-Ekiti. I was also involved in offering counselling services to the students.

"After my NYSC, I offered volunteer counselling services to some agents like Catholic Action Committee on HIV/AIDS (CACA) and State Action Committee on HIV/AIDS. I also worked as a volunteer at the 14th International Conference on AIDS & STIs in Africa (ICASA 2005). My work journey also took me to Claret Academy (Secondary School), in Owerri, Imo State, where I taught Chemistry from 2006 to 2017.

"The school recorded 100% credit pass in Chemistry, both in WASSCE and NECO, during this period, to my credit. I started and completed my Masters' in Biochemistry at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, (FUTO), in Imo State, between 2009 and 2012. I am currently a Ph.D student at the same FUTO," she narrated.

Natural products, antioxidants researcher

As a scientist, Ayoka whose research area is natural products with interest on natural antioxidants, explained that natural products are purified organic compounds isolated from natural sources. According to her, they have therapeutic benefit as traditional medicines for treating disease, and providing knowledge to derive active components as lead compounds, for drug discovery.

"Extracts of some natural products led to modern discovery of their active ingredients, and eventually to the development of new drugs. Many pharmacological active natural products have already been identified, although the number of plants that have been extensively studied is relatively small. Natural product research involves extraction of the metabolites either by macerating or by boiling (refluxing) the plant material, in a solvent to obtain a solution known as an extract.

"This is followed by characterisation of the extract (processes to determine its chemical and physical properties). The chemical nature of the extract is determined by carrying out a phytochemical analysis of the extract, which involves screening the extract for the presence of metabolites. As the extract is usually a mixture of compounds, it is purified by the isolation of the component compounds, using separation techniques, such as chromatography in conjunction with selective detectors employing different detection systems.

"The search for novel natural antioxidants of plant origin has ever since increased. Antioxidants play major roles in the protective effect of plant medicine, and in reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Antioxidants producing free radical scavenging mechanism play a crucial role in protecting the liver against carbon tetrachloride induced hepatic damage. Therefore, it is reasonable to search for antioxidant agents from plant sources," the natural product researcher said.

What hinders natural product research

Highlighting the problems hindering natural product research in the country, the UNN lecturer, pointed out that though natural products play vital role in innovative drug discovery and development, there are still some challenges encountered by natural product researchers.

Hear her: "There is lack of funds to finance project work and inability to have access to sophisticated instruments used for analysis. Natural product research is diverse, expensive and time consuming, requiring instruments that cannot be found in Nigeria, and where they are found, they are not functional.

“There is also the challenge of determining the quality control of extracts and lack of evidence of therapeutic efficacy of natural medicine when compared with conventional medicine. Moreover, researchers are faced with the problem of procurement and authentication of plant materials, implementation of high-throughput screening bioassays and scale-up of bioactive lead compounds."

Professorial dream

As an academic, Mrs. Ayoka, said in the nearest future, she hopes to become a Professor and a well-recognized national and international science researcher. She also bemoaned the fact that Nigerian universities are grossly under-equipped, but however said, researchers and scientists in the country have made significant impact in national development, through their quality research.

According to her, this implies that, if the universities are equipped, researchers in Nigeria will compete favourably with their counterparts across the globe. Said the UNN biochemist: "There should be an informed policy formulation and implementation towards improving institutional academic research productivity."

‘How I relax'

Ayoka, who relaxes by reading literary books, or watching movies, and also likes sewing and cooking, advised young female scientists to be focused and avoid distractions. She said they should look up to other women scientists who have excelled in their various fields and have contributed immensely to national development.

This report was funded by the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN).

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