Jedidah Njeri Ngugi Breaking gender stereotypes in sciences

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Jedidah Njeri Ngugi was uneasy about pursuing a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology because it was a male dominated programme. But she still went ahead and followed her dream. Now a tutor at Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), she encourages girls not to fear science-related subjects. She shared her inspiring story with HENRY KAHARA.

If we want scientists and engineers in the future, we should be cultivating girls as much as boys.” This quote by American astronaut Sally Ride resonates well with 26-year-old Jedidah Njeri Ngugi, a lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

Jedidah proved wrong the myth that women are not good in science related subjects when she pursued a Bachelors degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

“When it comes to education, it is not about gender but rather hard work,” she says emphatically.

Jedidah, who describes herself as a go-getter, believes that focus always distinguishes between losers and winners and that life is all about being passionate about one’s dreams. And this is how she has determinedly chosen to pursue her passion.

Born and brought up in Murunyu village in Nakuru County Jedidah experienced a rocky childhood.

“My parents were, and still are, peasant farmers and this meant that many times we barely had enough to live by. I watched my parents struggle to provide for us. Sometimes my siblings and I would be sent home for school fees and stay at home for up to a month,” says the twin, born in a family of eight siblings.

Despite the tough times she never gave up, as she was aware challenges are seasonal. Her
childhood struggles fuelled her to achieve excellent grades in high school, which helped her secure admission at JKUAT to pursue a degree in molecular biology and bioinformatics.

The course was male dominated and she initially wanted to change to the more gender-friendly medicine programme but was unsuccessful.

Without any other option she enrolled for the course and as soon as classes began, she realised that was where her heart was. She graduated with her first degree and enrolled for a Masters in the same programme, which she is about to complete.

Jedidah has busted the myth that girls are not good in science-related subjects. She has done it, excelled in it, and now encourages women not to shy away from sciences.

“I spend most of my time either helping students who are not doing well in class or mentoring girls. I teach medicine and dental surgery courses and try to make learning as enjoyable as possible, ” she says.

A believer that teaching is a calling, Jedidah says unless one has a heart to help others they can’t make the most of the teaching profession. She experimented with teaching in high school and recalls her mathematics teacher requesting her to assist her juniors in lower forms to solve mathematics problems.

“Being a teacher is much more than just executing lesson plans. It is also becoming a parent of sorts to the students,” she says, adding that one has to be a role model to their students.

Active in research

Apart from teaching, Jedidah wants to specialise in research and says the field is sparsely populated. She points out that most academicians shy away from specialising in research because it is expensive and receives poor funding by the government. As a result most researchers in Kenya today source sponsorship from international organisations.

A firm believer that every solution to the current economic problems in Kenya lies in sciences, Jedidah is currently doing a research on toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease commonly spread by pets and domestic animals.

The research is sponsored by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She says although toxoplasmosis is a common disease in Kenya, most people don’t have much information about it.

It is a neglected disease yet it has overwhelming effects and sometimes kills. She observes that the parasite, toxoplasma gondii, is associated with miscarriages when it infects pregnant females.

The outcome of her project will therefore contribute immensely to the management and diagnosis of toxoplasmosis disease in Kenya and beyond.

A chance to mentor

Jedidah likes to mentor young girls and points out that society still looks down on women albeit in subtle ways, yet they have lots of potential that can be achieved through encouragement and support.

“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation,” she sums up on the importance of girl-child education.

She is quick to point out that the only way to break the stereotype that women are not good in science-related subjects is through erasing the negative perceptions in society and replacing them with the right information.

It is this that drove her towards mentorship in 2010 when she visited her former primary school in Nakuru with a group of university friends. “I felt the urge to give back to the community and found mentoring fulfilling,” she says.

Jedidah urges parents to embrace mentorship since it has the potential to influence young minds. She also reckons that with the disconnect today between young adults and their parents, partly attributed to the busy lifestyles that have seen many parents lack time for their children, mentorship provides an opportunity to fill the gap.

She points out that having the guidance, encouragement and support of a trusted and experienced mentor can provide a mentee with a broad range of personal and professional benefits.

She believes through mentorship the society can transform because mentorship has the potential to instill good morals in young adults and motivate as well as encourage them to reach their full potential.

“Young people need to be at the front line of global change because they are key agents of development and peace if empowered,” she says and adds that an investment in a young person is a great asset as they are energetic, fresh and ambitious.

Life’s journey

Jedidah admits that being where she is today has not been easy and recalls her younger years when she severally attempted to join wrong groups and was only able to withstand the temptation through her firm foundation in her Christian faith.

“I have stood my ground over the years and have never gone with the wave,” she says, noting that peer pressure is one of the main reasons why most young people mess up in life.

Doubling up as both a lecturer and student has not been a walk in the park. “Nothing comes easy in life and for you to make it you have to sacrifice a lot, sometimes even your friendships. I am yet to achieve my goals but I am soldiering on,” she says resolutely.

When she is not engaged in class-work or mentorship Jedidah likes to travel, make new friends and visit the less privileged. Having grown up in a humble background Jedidah has a heart for the needy as she understands too well what it means to lack.

“Life is not about what we do to ourselves but what we do to others,” she says, adding that touching and transforming lives is the best gift one can give to others. Her role model is Professor Lucy Mutharia, a Kenyan scientist based in Canada.

Jedidah concludes this interview with some words of advice. “Do what is right and identify mentors to guide you through life. But most importantly, identify your purpose in life and work towards achieving it.”

 

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