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‘Varsities must put in place policies that will encourage female academics to thrive’


Cecilia Olufunke Akintayo

Prof Cecilia Akintayo recently delivered the first inaugural lecture of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti (FUOYE). The erudite professor of Industrial Chemistry’s lecture was titled, “The place of plant-based oil derived products as sustainable replacement for petrochemical products of industries.’ In this interview with IYABO LAWAL, she spoke on issues affecting tertiary education particularly research, challenges facing women in academics and the sciences as well as higher education in Nigeria.

How do you feel being the person to deliver the first inaugural lecture at the Federal University, Oye (FUOYE)?
I must confess that when I approached the Management of FUOYE about delivering my inaugural lecture, I was just doing the needful expected of a professor in a university to make a public presentation of the results of his/her findings that earned him/ her the professorial chair. That the lecture is going to be the first in FUOYE didn’t cross my mind at al, what is more important is the contribution one is making towards improving the lots of the society. However I appreciate the honour and recognition providence has accorded me, I think it is a plus for the women folk that we can competitively lead in serious matters and excel.

Your focus is on replacing petrochemicals with biochemicals derived from plant oil. Should countries that rely on petrochemicals such as Nigeria be worried?
In an age of fluctuating oil prices, global warming and other environmental problems, the change from fossil feedstock to renewable resources can considerably contribute to a sustainable development in the future. Especially plant derived fats and oils bear a large potential for the substitution of currently used petrochemicals, since monomers, fine chemicals and polymers can be derived from these resources in a straightforward fashion. The synthesis of monomers as well as polymers from plant fats and oils has already found some industrial application and recent developments in this field offer promising new opportunities, The use of renewable raw materials as feedstocks for chemical production is continually suggested as offering several advantages over conventional petrochemical feedstocks, including a lowered demand for diminishing crude oil supplies, greater sustainability of the raw material source, the ability to recycle, the security of domestic feedstock supplies, and a source of new, structurally interesting building blocks with new properties and applications.

But nations that rely on fossil resources for their economy like Nigeria should not worry much because unlike the picture a few decades ago, it now appears that this process will take many decades and the speed of the transition from petrochemicals to oleochemicals will depend crucially on factors such as the health of the global economy, progress in R&D into new plant oils, and wider political developments.Countries like Nigeria are very rich in flora and if they focus on the right priorities, they would remain the champions even when eventually there is the desired move from petrochemicals to oleochemicals for the global benefit of all.

How ready do you think the world is for a post-crude oil economy? Is this likely ever to come true?
We will never know if we don’t take a few small steps forward. Considering the incremental steps that have been taken towards a post-crude oil economy globally, one can say that a lot has been done in this direction. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Petroleum is fossil fuel from millions of years ago. We have to end our dependence on them. Cheap petroleum is ending and their decline will commence in the near future. We have to reshape every aspect of our lives – how we work, live, eat, and how we relate to one another. This will take decades but we need a plan b. This can only happen if everyone participates in these changes in an open and informed way. It can only happen if the changes are fair and equitable. Building trust is important. This will not happen with “top down” command approaches where leaders say “we know best”. This is not a reflection on their competence, rather it reflects on the complexity of the task.

FUOYE is among the youngest federal universities in the country, yet it is matching older ones in ranking. How is the Management able to make this happen? What unique opportunities do FUOYE offer students?
FUOYE ranks well among Nigerian universities. I think the strategy is that the management gives due attention to parameters that are considered in ranking universities. It’s a simple wisdom of focusing on things that matter. FUOYE has continued to attract the best and brightest students and academics for the future. Within available resources, the university is building infrastructure that will attract them, while, at the same time, tackling the kinds of financial problems the sector faces. The university management is setting right priorities and addressing academic matters to the extent that all its courses are duly accredited by the National University Commission (NUC).

There appears to be a small number of female scientists and researchers in Nigerian universities. Why is this so and what could be done to address this?
A lot has to do with women trying to figure out which setting will allow them to integrate their professional and family lives. For example, women have a limited window of time to start a family, given the knowledge that they have a biological clock after which only a very small percentage are able to conceive naturally. 

Another deep rooted problem is that to be a successful academic, you have to work harder after each promotion you earn. This puts a lot of pressure on women who naturally have competing interests at the same time. These issues are different from the issue of gender balance that is generally being addressed institutionally by our universities and systems generally.

On what could be done, I think mentoring is key and number one. Experienced women scientists need to mentor the upcoming ones and ensure that they successfully integrate their professional and family life. Secondly, Nigerian universities should put in place policies that would encourage female academics to grow given their peculiarities.

For example, giving those that have children a kind of pre-school childcare financial support, giving women the opportunity to apply for travel support to conferences for dependants, giving them some time off teaching for those that are primary parents among others. These kinds of policies would solve a lot of challenges faced by women in balancing their family life and making the world a more peaceful space for all of us.

What advise would you offer young women seeking to start a career in academics?
Establish a committed support network., bring everyone important in your life to understand you need their support to excel in academics. It takes a village to launch an academic career. Find an academic mentor; follow the lead of academics that have been there before especially successful women academics. Occasionally, when you find a male academic mentor with proven genuine motives, follow their lead as they even build destines better than their females counterparts.

Manage competing responsibilities effectively; develop the skill of multitasking. Also be realistic of the challenges you face that may kind of slow down your pace. For example that you are not completing your doctoral studies in three years like your male counterparts does not mean you are not as smart as them, It may just be because you have to combine other roles with your studies. Don’t ever lose your confidence because of your peculiarities.

In this article:
Cecilia AkintayoFUOYE
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