And last month, Prof Ngila was one of Africa’s top five female scientists who were each awarded $20,000 (Sh2 million) for excelling in science research, by the African Union in partnership with the European Union, who have sponsored the event since 2008.
For the last 19 years, Prof Jane Catherine Ngila has been living abroad doing what she loves most – teaching and research. Ending up in a foreign land and settling there for all those years was a deliberate choice and she has no regrets.
She left Kenyatta University in 1998 to seek greener pastures at the University of Botswana, and later at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2006 and University of Johannesburg in 2011.
Getting the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Science Regional Award on January 24, 2017 following her winning the 2016 South Africa’s Women in Science Awards, she says, was “the cherry on the cake”.
The much acclaimed award by the African Union is named after Ghana’s first President and Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah.
The objective of the programme is to recognise top African scientists for their achievements and valuable discoveries and findings.
In the award ceremony held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Prof Ngila was recognised as the East African region laureate for her research in Analytical-Environmental Chemistry focusing on water resource management.
The achievement would have been unimaginable when she was growing up in a large family in the semi-arid Ithiani village in Kitui County.
“I lived under harsh conditions while attending primary and secondary schools,” she recalls.
Together with her brothers and sisters, they used to trek for long distances to fetch water, sometimes very early in the morning before going to school. On other days, they would have to till the land early in the morning before heading to primary school. After school, she and her siblings would go home running to fetch firewood and graze cattle.
“This was my lowest moment in life. It was due to these hardships that I decided to work hard in school, to change this lifestyle,” she says.
Prof Ngila intends to use some of the funds on research activities as a top up bursary for her students whom she is currently training at the University of Johannesburg, where she is based.
“I will also use some of the money for research conference attendance as well as for personal reward,” she says.
Prof Ngila explains that after obtaining PhD in Analytical-Environmental Chemistry, she wanted to carry out research, publish and grow as an academic within the university system in Kenya.
“It was a challenge at Kenyatta University as a lecturer to advance in quality research due to limitations in research infrastructure,” she says.
Over the years, she has been recognised for her exemplary work in promoting sciences, particularly chemistry and in 2011 the University of Johannesburg appointed her a full professor.
“It was my happiest day because I considered that position to be typically the highest academic achievement in any university,” she says.
The turning point on her career was August 11, last year, when she was announced the winner of the Women in Science Award in the Physical Sciences & Engineering category by South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology.
For those who thought she is done with seeking career growth, the scholar says she is currently considering pursuing professional development in administration and management.
“The opportunity is coming soon, watch the space,” she says.
On brain drain that has seen many Kenyans leave for better opportunities overseas, Prof Ngila says the solution lies in having the right working environment, particularly the teaching and research infrastructure and commensurate remuneration.
She regrets that students specialising in life and physical sciences in Kenya take longer to complete postgraduate studies compared to more advanced countries, due to lack of appropriate equipment to support effective teaching and research.
“If the lecturers are preoccupied with ‘moonlighting’ in search for extra income, then I do not expect them to focus seriously on academic research including training masters and doctoral students. There are only so many hours in a day,” she says.