‘We need strict standards to make Nigerian schools competitive’
Omowunmi Sadik, a professor of Chemistry and Director, Center for Research in Advanced Sensing Technologies & Environmental Sustainability (CREATES) at the State University of New York, Binghamton, was recently honoured with the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award after similarly receiving the Australian Merit Award. In this interview with UJUNWA ATUEYI, she spoke on issues affecting Nigeria’s education sector and how it could be strategically addressed.
Foreigners in the western countries still face a lot of negative stereotypes. How did you get over the challenge to lead a successful career in the United States (US)?
My philosophy remains the same, which is, look for ways to create your own opportunities and refuse to be defined by whatever constraints the society places on you. The idea of race touches every aspect of American society. In spite of this, America also rewards hard work and excellence. If you work hard, play according to the rules, you do get some recognition. You may need to work five times harder than your white or male colleagues in order to be recognized, and you may face significant challenges along the way that others would never face, but if you persist, you eventually do get some recognition. According to the US Census Bureau, the immigrant group with the highest levels of university education in the United States is Africans.
Asian immigrants, who typically receive most of the attention and are described as “model minorities” by American society, are actually less educated than African immigrants. Furthermore, Nigerians in the US are especially well educated, with nearly two-thirds of us holding university degrees, a much higher percentage than Chinese or South Korean immigrants. Nigerians are the hardest working people in the world, and when we are placed in an environment where efforts translate into results, we thrive. I give credit to my parents for instilling the value of education in my siblings and in me, and I am very proud to say that my husband and I have given the same legacy to our children.
What do you consider your most valuable contribution to Nigeria for which you were considered for the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOMA)?
Of the 73 Nigerians who have received the NNOMA, including Wole Soyinka and late Chinua Achebe, I am the fourth woman and the first female scientist to be so honoured. Rather than rewarding me for any one contribution, the award broadly recognises my accomplishments in science, innovation/research, my international professional leadership and my passion for developing sustainable solutions to Nigeria’s educational and research needs.
As a female chemistry professor trained in Nigeria, Australia and the United States and a successful senior faculty member at one of the foremost United States academic institutions, the national honour speaks volumes about the quality of my groundbreaking works in biosensors, nanotechnology and environmental science. This honour is the most recent of numerous international awards and recognition that I have received. For example, in 2010, I became a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom.
In 2003, I became the first Nigerian American to receive the distinguished Harvard University Radcliffe Fellowship. The famous Nigerian authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Uzodinma Iweala (Iweala is the son of former Nigerian Finance Minister Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala), both received the same Harvard University Radcliffe Fellowship eight years after I did, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of the US received the Harvard University Radcliffe Fellowship two years before I did. I am a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE). I received the Australian Merit Award, The SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Research, the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Inventor, the US National Research Council Collaboration in Basic Science and Engineering Fellowship and the US National Science Foundation’s Discovery Corps Senior Fellowship.
You grew up in an era when the girl-child was not given a chance in education. How did you break this barrier?
I grew up in a family in which my parents never drew any distinction between my brothers and me. I was born in Lagos Island Maternity Hospital. My father, the late Pa Tairu Bello Agboola, was born in Lagos and his parents came from Ikereku in Oke-Ona, Abeokuta, Ogun State. My mother, the late Mrs. Omoshalewa Agboola, was born in Lagos. But her father came from Epe while her mother was from Ota in Ogun State.
My father was the first person to teach me the multiplication table and how to read a clock. Although he was a very successful cocoa merchant, his professional training in pharmacy led him to emphasize science as a pathway to professional success for his children. We were all required to be at the top our academic classes. Like most of my father’s children, I left home at the age of 10 to attend boarding school in Abeokuta. Parents with the financial means always sent their children to the best schools. My boarding school experience was very instrumental in helping me to be a tough, hardworking individual.
In what specific ways did your boarding school experience help you?
Boarding school during our time was like a boot camp. Every activity and each hour of the day was very well structured. Living like this during your formative years goes a very long way in helping you develop into a very disciplined person. You learn the importance of planning and doing what it takes to achieve your goals.
What informed your interest in the male-dominated science profession?
I believe that perseverance, risk-taking and luck play an important role in discovery and that as a scientist, I am not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom. Science and technology, chemistry in particular, are male-dominated fields. With increasing scarce and limited resources, I have operated at the level of top US research institutions. I received nearly $7m grants from leading programmes in the US. I mentored over 30 PhD/MS scientists and many of these have gained employment in academia, national laboratories and the private sector. Whenever I experience some push-backs, I have never hesitated to create my own opportunities.
For example, I was the inaugural Chair of the First Gordon Conference on Environmental Nanotechnology held in Waterville, May 29 – June 3, 2011. I am the President and Co-founder of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organisation, a non-profit international professional society dedicated to advancing sustainable nanotechnology around the world.
As the President and co-founder of SNO, I have devoted the last five years educating the public and stakeholders on what sustainable nanotechnology is and how sustainably engineered nanotechnologies can greatly improve society. My leadership and contributions to the scholarship of SNO have helped the growth of the organisation (current membership is 2,000), attracted new members and strengthen the core mission of the organisation. SNO membership includes organisations, scientists, and others from all over the world. I have contributed my invaluable time to SNO, expertise, and leadership to countless stakeholders in the broader community of nanotechnologists.
You seem to be more visible in the socio-economic life of other countries than that of Nigeria. Is this deliberate?
This was not deliberate at all. I left Nigeria in February of 1991 with a heavy heart. It was my intention to return to my homeland after receiving my PhD from the University of Wollongong in Australia. I asked my employer at the time, the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR), to grant me a study leave without pay in order to ensure that my job would wait for me after I finished my PhD. However, NIOMR turned my request and told me that I must resign my position if I wished to earn my PhD. I had no choice but to depart, leaving my husband and children in Nigeria. I nearly gave up and returned to Nigeria after six months of waiting for the Australian High Commission in Lagos to grant my husband and children visas to join me. They received their visas just in time. My older son could not recognise me when they joined me in Australia. He called me “Aunty” instead of “Mummy” for a long time before he accepted me as his mother again. It is because of NIOMR’s decision not to grant me study leave without pay that we left Australia for the US after I earned my PhD, rather than returning home to Nigeria.
Still, I have been contributing to Nigeria in the areas of education, scientific research and innovation. I have given numerous keynote speeches highlighting my research at universities across Nigeria. I have accepted students from Nigerian universities into my research laboratory in New York collaborated with Nigerian researchers.
What should we do to move beyond mere campaign to actual science development?
The economic situation in Nigeria is unsustainable. There are several things that we can do to change this Government should fund research and innovation, particularly in agriculture, energy and power. The founders of US technology giant Apple started their company in part with US Government funds. Many other recent technological breakthroughs came directly from the US Government.
Commercialisation of research by the private sector must be incentivised and encouraged· Government should eliminate crude oil theft, address environmental hazards caused by oil pollution in the Niger Delta, begin proper utilization of Nigeria’s vast natural gas resources by investing in gas-powered electricity generation and strengthening the transmission and distribution network.
What can Nigeria adopt from the international scene to enhance her educational system and development?
The Nigerian educational system is already very international. Starting from the British colonial era to the bourgeoning private educational high schools and universities that are now available in the country, I will say we are very international. What we need at this stage is reform: we need to constantly examine our educational system to determine what works and what needs to be improved. Being too international may not necessarily be the best for us. We cannot simply photocopy the British educational system or even the American system. We ought to examine our own uniqueness, location, custom and the people and adopt an educational system that will take into account the uniqueness.
What is your impression on the rise of private universities in Nigeria?
The rise of private universities in Nigeria is a positive development. Nigeria currently has approximately 120 universities, about half of which are privately-run, for a population of around 180 million. Meanwhile, there are 5,300 institutions of higher education in the United States for a population of just over 300 million. Harvard University and MIT are just two of over 100 institutions of higher learning in Boston. While greater investment in education is still needed, the increase in the number of private universities in Nigeria has, at least, created more choices for the ever-increasing number of higher education seekers and created some level of competition for the public universities.
In order to make these universities competitive on a global scale in the next decades, we need to establish and enforce stringent academic standards. The accreditation system must include standardised minimum requirements for each course of study, and each university must be subjected to periodic assessment by independent bodies. It is not enough to have physical buildings; these schools must be equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and technology to support core institutional missions and research activities. Exchange programmes with foreign universities and access to global research journals are some of the academic innovations that must be allowed to take root in Nigeria.
What is going to be your ‘home-coming’ project for the Nigeria education?
I intend to establish a non-for-profit foundation to provide opportunities for Nigerians and other Africans to gain exposure to core competencies required for success in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. It will also focus on how to attract funding in academia, how to publish research and commercialisation of innovative ideas.
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