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  • CAREER FEATURE

Advance Kenyan science by seizing opportunities to collaborate

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Veronica Okello

Environmental scientist Veronica Okello develops sustainable approaches to clean up heavy metals.Credit: Esther Sweeney for Nature

Voices from Africa

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. In this seventh article of eight describing the career experiences of African women in science, Okello describes how support from family members enabled her to study abroad, and how she cultivates the networks she forged overseas to foster collaborations.

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.

Often, I see people raised in Kenya who are timid and scared of approaching their professors. They think that being quiet is being nice. But I advise young researchers to have a great personality and to respectfully talk and air their views. Approaching professors for opportunities is a way to be on the right path. And once an opportunity comes, grab it and run with it.

Young women who have already started their families can face big challenges. I advise these women to see whether their spouses can support them in pursuing further studies — not necessarily abroad, but maybe in their own country.

Once early-career researchers have a university position, they should identify someone at their institution to be their mentor. For me, this was Zachary Getenga, an analytical chemist who has consistently guided me on how to write grant proposals. He watches out for me. I’m in my eighth year as a lecturer and should have been promoted already. But in our promotion system, single-author papers count for more than grants or publications with multiple authors. I feel so demotivated by this. But he tells me to keep going, to build my profile.

The policy committees of Kenyan universities are typically dominated by men. If I sat on one of these committees, I would change the promotion policy to award points to people who bring in grants and equipment to the university. I have brought in analytical equipment, including an electrochemical analyser, worth more than US$28,000 — that is a lot of service to the university!

As a woman in science, the most limiting factor we have is time. Writing grants takes a lot of time and effort that competes with my teaching, administrative meetings and family time. I try to create my own time — this is why I’m doing this interview on Zoom from my car. You have to create the time when you want to succeed.

Nature 603, 189-190 (2022)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00451-6

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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