Childhood curiosity can lead you to a career in science

As a child, Francisca Nneka Okeke was fascinated by the sky and its movements. This strong curiosity later brought her to science, and more precisely to physics, as she was longing to understand why planes could fly. She dedicated her career to physics, and made great contributions to our knowledge of the ionosphere and the “equatorial electrojet phenomenon", furthering our understanding of climate change. This is how childhood curiosity led Professor Francisca Okeke to a women scientist’s career.

DiscovHER - At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Francisca Nneka Okeke - My late father mentored me by exposing me to Mathematics. He taught me Mathematics and highly encouraged me which made me to love Mathematics. This love which I developed for Mathematics later metamorphosed into a love for Physics.

D/H - So you were exposed to science very early! Could you describe a scientific revelation that moved you in childhood or adolescence?

FNO - One of the scientific mysteries that I was very curious to understand when I was young is the nature and content of space above the earth surface. Why is the sky white, at times blue, how can airplane fly in the sky without falling back. These and some others were keeping me curious and when finally in my secondary school I asked these questions I was told that the answers are in Physics. I developed huge interest in Physics and finally in atmospheric Physics.

D/H - Can you tell us why you are so fond of physics?

FNO - Physical sciences are unique in that, as a cross-cutting discipline, they have a lot of applications in many areas of economic development including agriculture, health, water, energy and information technology. Physical sciences are the basis for most technological development, for example; radio waves, x-rays, power industries, electronics drug production etc. I am fascinated with all the discoveries that are dependent on Physics and it is my wish that I will one day make a further breakthrough in this field.

D/H - What were the biggest challenges you faced in pursuing a career in science? How did you resolve them?

FNO - One of the challenges is the then societal believe that science, particularly Physics optimizes male characteristics and is regarded as men’s domain not women. Women were expected to possess female characteristics that is most enthusiastically praised and accepted in our society- passivity, emotionality, intuition receptivity and others. That explains why in my class of 1980 we were thirty undergraduate studying physics with only two women,

The next challenge I faced in my career was lack of facilities and current journals. My PhD was carried out in Nigeria where there was little or no facilities. Then, computation was done manually and it was almost impossible to complete my work.

Solution came when in 1994 I travelled to Japan for 3 months and there I had facilities to complete my PhD work. Numerous research visits to various advanced countries have really helped me.

D/H - In your opinion, how do women uniquely contribute to science? What are the defining features of women as scientists?

FNO - It will bring about full participation of women scientists in development of science and technology which invariably will contribute to the development of a Nation. The distinctive features of women as scientists include; a positive attitude, responsibility, self-discipline, being teachable, a listening ear, focus, courage, competence, dedication and devotion.

D/H - If the cause of women in science is worth fighting for, how has an award helped you do so?

FNO - The cause of women in science is worth fighting for, we appreciate the support from UNESCO and the L'Oréal foundation has really improved the state of Women in science tremendously. Women in science have proved in many sectors that if given better opportunity they can perform better than their male counterparts. A big challenge is the lack of opportunity. A number of women particularly in Africa are distracted by domestic assignments and child bearing. Few women have successfully combined domestic assignment and research and yet emerge in flying colors.

This award is a big challenge and has encouraged me to work harder, particularly in giving the younger women scientists the leadership needed to let them forge ahead.

More about Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke:

For Women in Science

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