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Featured STEM Professional – April 2017

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Sheila Ochugboju, Ph.D.

This month, meet an inspiring woman who describes herself as “adaptive, creative, and contemplative”. Dr. Sheila Ochugboju is a science communicator and has done some amazing work across Europe and the African continent over the last 15 years. She worked as the Chief Communications Officer at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) and led the African Women of Essence International (AWEI) initiative for the Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network (GWIIN). As a member of the Pan African Network of Emerging Leaders (PANEL UK), she launched the African Science Cafes, which provide opportunity for public engagement with science and technology in South Africa, Kenya and Lesotho. As part of this great network, she also established an innovation centre for African women, the Centre of Innovation, Enterprise and Technology (CIET) at Doregos Univerisity in Lagos, Nigeria. Dr. Ochugboju is a senior TED fellow, launched TEDx Nairobi, and continues to support and inspire women and minorities in the sciences.

Dr. Ochugboju was born to a community of strong women in Nigeria. She was raised by the community, while her parents were overseas studying and working, and she only joined her mother in England at the age of 9. As a child, she was advised to stay indoors as to avoid the numerous dangers of the outdoors, including bacteria, viruses and scorpions. “So I wondered endlessly about so many beautiful, vicious or benign, seen or unseen organisms living alongside us. How would we survive?” she remembers, and this curiosity was the motivation for her research later in her career. She studied Medical Biochemistry for her Bachelors degree and received her Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry from London University. She then continued to study genetic engineering, and in particular the development of novel biopesticides, for her postdoctoral work at the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology at Oxford, for which she was a proud recipient of the prestigious Daphne Jackson Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Her career path led her to specialize in scientific administration and communication at the Engineering & Technology Board (ETB), where she established and managed programs to strengthen Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in education and professional development. She also worked at the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) in Nairobi, Kenya as head of the Communications and Outreach Department, where she supported research communication and outreach activities with particular emphasis on science policy projects in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. In 2010, Dr. Ochugboju became the Chief Communications Officer for the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), an international non-profit making organization based in Accra, Ghana that provides research, advisory and institutional strengthening support.

As a minority and a woman Sheila Ochugboju has battled with acceptance and recognition amongst peers and colleagues throughout a large part of her scientific career. In her opinion, “the three greatest barriers are systems, perceptions and finance.” Systems – The work environment, which in many countries offers few choices for women to optimally adapt to different stages of life and careers. Perceptions – The gender bias that is still strong against women scientists within academia and research institutions, despite centuries of progress. And finance – The fact that in high profile, big budget projects male scientists are usually more prominently featured, while women scientists generally become more visible at the downstream phases of work, where less decision-making power lies. Throughout her life as a scientist and science communicator, she continues to advocate for women and minorities in the sciences, and has become an inspirational role model for future generations.

Today, Dr. Ochugboju Kaka is a science communicator and international development expert, encouraging innovation and social change. She is a Research Capacity Advisor at the Training Centre for Communication in Nairobi, where she facilitates training courses, focuses on policymaking, and builds networks to promote and improve science communication in diverse disciplines across the African Continent and internationally. She is also a Knowledge Management Specialist at UNDP Nigeria’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Program, promoting conservation and low carbon futures for Nigeria. She is a TED Fellow, and a curator at TEDxNairobi (tedxnairobi.com), an annual flagship event, which captures the spirit of ideas worth spreading. And she is also co-founded the microstock photography website Africa Knows (www.africaknows.com).

“It’s wonderful that now the international development world is raising up strong, dynamic women leaders, who are at the forefront of change in the fight against poverty and disease across the world”, says Ochugboju. “It’s incredible to be amongst such a diverse mix of women scientists, which in itself exemplifies the power that different perspectives, skills, experience, and heritage brings to any discipline. I’m also encouraged that nearly 20 years after I got my PhD in biochemistry, the image of women in science is finally shifting. What a beautiful change that makes.”

Researched and written by Jolanda Muenzel

Sources:
http://www.tcc-africa.org/tcc/index.php/61-dr-sheila-kaka-ochugboju
https://fellowsblog.ted.com/meet-12-badass-scientists-who-also-happen-to-be-women-ace8d797bcad
http://www.wingsworldquest.org/blog/2016/10/14/women-of-discovery-qa-with-sheila-ochugboju
http://www.ted.com/profiles/133411/fellow
http://www.open.edu/openlearn/nature-environment/natural-history/darwin-now-out-africa