Health & Education

Badass scientists can be heroes too

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Hello all! We were really touched at the LR Team when we received an email from one of our dear readers. He told us how he now realizes that were it not for his mother and mother in-law, he and his wife would not be the top business executives they are today. These were the two women who held the home front while they slugged it out in the career world. After reading ‘wind beneath my wings – Ivan Jr. Story’, they decided as part of their continued celebratory effort, to sponsor both “heroines” on an all expense paid Luxury Cruise in April this year. How wonderful!

This week, LR has the privilege of getting one of the extraordinary ladies in the league of Ted Fellows to share with us on this “borderless inspirational” space. In put her name in Google and you find she is one of those described as “the 12 Badass Scientists… Who also happen to be women”.

Apart from becoming one of the leading world female scientist worthy of mention, Dr. Sheila Ochugboju Kaka is a very versatile lady described as a development professional specializing in science, economics and policy development in Africa. She is the co-founder of both TEDxNairobi and Africaknows (click for video clip). Africaknows is a stock photography website – Kenyan-based media and photography consultancy network, which ‘re-brands’ Africa by “telling a different story” with words and pictures.


This week, read as Dr. Sheila Ochugboju Kaka tells us that:


The day David Bowie died I wanted to cry, so I went for a long walk to the park and tried to examine the feelings entangled with the sadness. At one point during that walk, I looked up and noticed the light filtering through the very blue sky, and the song playing in my head was “We can be heroes…..just for day’. Why is that song so poignant? Why do we want to be heroes and how do the dreams of these possibilities shape our choices in life and career?

The first time I encountered such a thought, I was looking up at a dark stormy sky, walking home from a tiny church in a little town in Ogoja, Nigeria. I was about 7 years old and caught in a vicious thunderstorm, where lightning seemed to strike the ground around me as I tried to run home. Gripped with fear, feeling so small in a wide open field, with nothing between me and the violent forces of nature, I took shelter under a tree. But then I remembered that trees attract lightening and that it might actually be the worst place for a person to hide. Then, at the height of my fear, a peace suddenly descended on me, and I was soothed by a sure knowledge that I would not be harmed at all. I became calm and found the courage to walk into the storm and find my way home, storm still raging around me.


The memory of that sublime moment comes back to me from time to time, and it has a particular power when I’ve lost faith in myself and the inherent magic that exists in the world. So I started searching for more revelations hidden within our natural universe, a journey of discovery which began with the study biochemistry. However science often obscures answers within a web of equations and reactions, many of which make no sense.

But we are taught to catalogue them all, in the hope that one day, a hero will come along and make sense of those pieces of evidence, perhaps leading us to discoveries that could transform our lives.

And those heroes do come along, regularly; look at Watson, Crick and Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA, heralding a revolution in the biomedical sciences in the last century. Then other great mavericks in my area of interest, such as Craig Ventor, who shook up the academic establishment with private sector savvy that fast-tracked the Human Genome Project. By the time I was working as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology (IVEM), the new millennium was dawning and welcoming these cataclysmic advances. It was hard not to feel inadequate as a scientist, being part of a dynamic community in Oxford where legends and Nobel Laureates come and go. It was both exhilarating and disempowering at the same time. Perhaps the added pressure came from being a young black mother, in a place where I would always be the unexpected anomaly, uneasy about assuming an unusual identity, no matter how honourable.

Then each day, I started taking long walks to the laboratory, and trying to remember the genesis of that feeling of power as a child in Ogoja, that awakening to a connected universe. I began to realize being a hero is based on being part of a greater mission. Connecting small acts to a bigger spectrum of discovery. In that way all scientists who are adding to the body of knowledge push the boundaries of possibilities each day. Everyday heroes, unseen and uncelebrated, yet undeterred. However, the power to keep going on that journey is also connected with an awareness that you can find your own place in that larger community.

IMG-20160226-WA003So, perhaps it’s not surprising that my career eventually shifted and found it’s way back to Africa, joining projects in international development and science communication. When I started working on the ground in Ghana and Kenya, I saw heroism in people just trying to live a life of dignity on less than a dollar a day. Many complex multi-faceted development projects place people, poverty and transformation at the centre of all activities. This is when and where the power to join the dots and make high quality connections becomes a useful skill. Bringing together disciplines of technology, politics, economics and others to ask a big question, in a very specific context.

Right now, it’s a particular privilege for me to be involved in the Global State of Urban Youth report for the United Nations Settlements program (UNHabitat), a dynamic agency which explores issues of urbanization, how can we improve the quality of our lives as more of us choose to live in cities. And the bigger question in this study is how does rising inequality affect our youths all around the world.

So….what is my journey of discovery teaching me so far? Well, I think it can be summed up by saying David Bowie was right. We can be all be heroes, for a day and maybe even more, simply because heroes often have surprising identities, they might just be a small part in a big thing. Finally, heroes may be forgettable or forgotten but their legacy never dies.

Yes Sheila, we at LR agree that “heroes often have surprising identities”. When you first meet this glamorous specimen of womanhood and motherhood, nothing in her very humble down to earth personality prepares one for the fact that you are meeting a scientist, an Oxford Doctoral Alumni or a Daphne Jackson Trust Post-Doctoral TED Research Fellow. Oh, did we forget to mention that she was also Chief Communications Officer for the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) (click for video clip) providing policy research and advisory services that support sustained growth and economic transformation for African governments. It has been no mean feat working her way up to becoming a name worthy of reckon on the Global Development Landscape; enhancing economic growth, leadership development and intercultural dialogue across the world.


We will leave you with the response from one of Dr. Sheila Ochugboju Kaka’s, recent interview with the Making All Voices Count (click link for clip) team which she is also presently collaborating with.

What was the best advice you were given in your life?

“My mother told me to ignore my rigid headmistress, who said I didn’t have a scientific brain, and should therefore not consider choosing science, but rather pursue a career in the arts. She said: “Whatever kind of brain you’ve got, you can make it do whatever you want in life. You are the master of your brain, not the other way around.”

When I went on to successfully complete my research for a Ph.D in Plant Biochemistry by the time I was 25, I realised she was totally right. And so was my headmistress! Maybe I am essentially a creative at heart, but I also learned to discipline my mind to rigour.”

Irrespective of our “perceived” identities, we each can be heroes as we see in the case of this lady who is both a badass scientist and a hero. Actually, those who know her, have often commented that it would be more on point to say she is a bit of every thing positive any one can be. Let us into your thoughts via the comments section as to the hero(s) in surprising identities around you or that you are.
* Heroes as used in this piece infers both heroes and heroines

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