Not investing in research leaves us at mercy of other countries- Fred-Ahmadu
• Academics deserve better remuneration to reduce brain drain
Dr. (Mrs.) Omowunmi Hannah Fred-Ahmadu is a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, Covenant University, Ota. The academic, who was best graduating student at undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral levels, in this interview with KEHINDE OLATUNJI, said PhD holders should earn what is commensurate with their efforts to address increasing challenge of brain drain in the various sectors.
Can you take us through your academic journey?
My academic journey began in Lagos State. I went through primary school, did my secondary education at Queens School, Ibadan, in 1993 and got admission immediately to University of Lagos (UNILAG) to study chemistry. I finished my first degree in 1998 and graduated as best student in the department that year. Shortly after, I enrolled for Masters but could not pursue it because I needed to start a job, as things were not so rosy at the time.
So, I got a banking job in 2002 after my youth service, which I did for 12 years. I won different awards at different levels, went for various training sessions and got different awards as a top officer among my colleagues. In the course of my banking career in 2010, I enrolled for Masters in Business Administration and of course, I did very well. That was my first Masters degree, with specialisation in management. I left the banking sector in 2014, after which I enrolled for Masters in Chemistry at Covenant University, specialising in Environmental Chemistry. As God would have it, I emerged best graduating student at Masters level. Based on that performance, Covenant University employed me as a lecturer. That was the beginning of my academic career in 2016. I immediately enrolled for PhD in Environmental Chemistry, which I completed in October 2020. As God would have it, I emerged the best graduating doctoral student.
Having spent 12 years in the banking sector, how were you able to return to academics and still emerge best, both at Masters and PhD levels?
A lot of people found it very profound, spending 12 years in banking and coming back to academics to get those awards was something very striking. And between 2016 and now, I have won several travel grants and a major fellowship. Among them is the Association of Commonwealth Universities blue carter in the United Kingdom. The fellowship was worth £10, 000 pounds. Part of what came with the fellowship was that I travelled to Australia. I was at the University of Newcastle, Australia, for three months to conduct research involving micro plastics pollution.
Also, in 2020, I got an award from the African German Network of Excellence in Science (AGNES), it’s a programme advocating for women in science. That one was worth £1,000 euros.
There is an academy of researchers called Global Academy. It comprises researchers all over the world, one of my supervisors during my doctoral degree, informed me that we were listed as one of the top 22 researchers, working towards the goal 14, which is life under water. We were rated among the top 22 researchers; my supervisor was rated 2nd, while I was rated 5th.
Well, I will say my driving force is my passion for excellence and research. I like learning new things, tried my hands on new things and has continued learning on daily basis. I like driving towards excellence in anything I do.
How have you been able to combine academics with being a wife and mother?
I have a very supportive husband. My husband pushes me to achieve so much and supports me whenever there is need for it. If I need to stay out, maybe in the office for a long time, he takes care of other things for me. I don’t have issues raising my children; God has been there for me. It is not easy combining all of these roles but in all, God has been faithful.
Somebody actually asked me that question when I was awarded the best graduating PhD student. Once a woman has the support of her family, then, it is very easy to forge ahead in whatever one does.
Would you say that you have reached the peak, after your PDG, what next?
No, I have not. Well, PhD is the highest academic degree but it is not an end in itself; it is just a means to an end. It gives the right to be able to carry out research and make claims. As a PhD holder, I can make claims based on my research findings.
For what next, I will say, impact. Now, I am looking at ways to impact the society. My research focus is on the use of plastics and plastic pollution. There is something we call micro plastics, if you look at an average refuse dump, what you see is at least 60 per cent of plastics, look at an average bin anywhere, you will see that the rate at which plastics have taken over our society is quite significant.
Although plastics are useful, how to manage them has become an issue. The rate of production is very high because demands are high. Production has grown from about 52 million tonnes in the 1970s to almost 400 million tonnes in 2020. This is an exponential growth and it is the same across the world. But these plastics don’t disappear; they only break down into smaller pieces.
How would you rate the environmental situation in Nigeria?
In Nigeria today, we have a lot of deficit as per management of refuse and discarded plastics. Our recycling is quite low. Even generally, across the world, a United Nations report has it that only about 10 per cent of plastics produced are recycled.
Government needs to ramp up facilities for waste management; also, facilities to recycle need to be upgraded. Besides, there is a need for public enlightenment, there are ways that people can re-use things instead of discarding them.
Manufacturers of things like plastics need education because they need to take responsibility for some of the plastics that are disposed off into the environment. Many of them just mass produce and are not bothered about the plastics. There is something called product cycle, the cycle of the product doesn’t just end with the consumer taking it, it is what happened after the consumer takes the product because the life cycle of the product continues.
For instance, when you take a bottle of coke, the life cycle of the bottle continues. Manufacturers need to take responsibility, probably to find a way to begin to pick up the used bottles and recycle them.
There is also another way the issue can be addressed, we have technologies that are producing biodegradable plastics now, but it is not very common and it is a bit more expensive than regular plastics but it is also an option.
Individuals also need to take responsibility by properly disposing their plastics. Public transport should have bins where they put used refuse and then discard it properly in a place where authorities can handle it and not just toss it anywhere.
What message do you want to give to professional women, especially those in academics?
I would say that in this day and age, there is nothing that should stop anyone from achieving whatever the woman or female gender wants to pursue in her life. Things are actually changing; there are scholarships tailored for only women. The award that I mentioned earlier, African German Network for Excellence in Science is a programme advocating for women in science. There are many scholarship opportunities that have been designed to help women, especially in Africa because the challenge is obvious and it has been identified.
A lot of funding bodies give preference to women; they encouraged them to apply for positions they are qualified for. So, the woman or female gender should not limit herself.
What is the role of government do to assist female academics?
We have major issues with implementation of policies, that is where we even have policies at all. In some cases, we don’t have policies in place and where we do, they are not implemented.
But if government can look at not only just formulating policies but put things in place that will enable them drive implementation and behavioural change among the populace, the country will be a better place for us all.
How will you react to exodus of professionals and academics abroad?
Let us take for example what is happening in the medical field, the environment is not conducive. A fresh PhD holder is not earning up to N200, 000 in this country. So, if a PhD holder cannot pay simple bills, no matter how brilliant, passionate, committed and patriotic the person is, because the country has not provided the enabling environment for him or her to flourish, if the person sees better opportunities in another country, the person will go. And the country stands to lose on every side.
When the best brains leave, there is a huge problem. For example, nothing stops us from having local solutions to COVID-19. Why can’t we have our own solution and let other countries come to us? Because investments have not been made, the few people that are ready to do research and bring up solutions are not funded, so, we are left at the mercy of countries that are not better than us.
Are you saying PhD holders are not paid well in Nigeria?
They are not. By both private and public institutions. They don’t have the kind of recognition and support they need. Getting a PhD means you have made contributions to knowledge, and it is not easy to do that. If someone has gone that far, then it will be nice for that effort to be well rewarded.