Prof Catherine Ngila

Interview with Prof Jane Catherine Ngila, UNSW

School of Chemistry graduate (PhD 1995),

supervised by Prof Brynn Hibbert and late Prof Peter Alexander


Where are you from?

I am originally from Nairobi, Kenya. I arrived from Kenyatta University to UNSW in Jan 1991 to begin a PhD with Prof Brynn Hibbert and Prof Peter Alexander as my supervisors. After submitting my PhD Thesis in Sept 1995, I returned to Kenyatta University to resume my lecturing post as a Tutorial Fellow. I was awarded a PhD degree in Analytical Chemistry in Sept 1996.

When did you first become interested in science?

During the 80’s there was the belief amongst some high school students that Science was difficult but I decided to set myself up for the challenge and prove the myth about science to be wrong. I had liked doing Maths from Primary School where there was also a tendency to think that “girls can’t do Science”, so I did! In addition, I liked the teaching approach of my Maths teacher in Primary School, Mr Joseph Maithya.

I owe my interest in Chemistry to my teacher Mr James Mackenzie who instilled a love for the subject which began when studying the mole theory and particularly the calculations in obtaining mole values from masses and concentrations. Since I really enjoyed Maths (statistics and calculus in particular) I found that I was able to pick up Chemistry with some ease at the University.

When did you decide Chemistry was your calling? Did you meet any opposition? What were the challenges?

My father was a tribal chief (government administrator) during the British colonial rule in Kenya and took part in the second world-war (1939-1945). Even though he did not understand much about advanced schooling for one to obtain A’ Levels certificate (equivalent HSC) and Bachelor’s degree, he encouraged me in my pursuit for further education. There was never any pressure on me as a female to get married. By the time I did my A’Level (1981) and Bachelors degree in 1996, I was the only one in my immediate family to complete A Levels and go on to University. However, later on my nieces and nephews emulated me and many extended family members have todate obtained bachelors and masters degrees some now have started PhD. Todate, I am the only one in the family to obtain a doctorate but that will not be the case in the next couple of years.

When did you first hear about UNSW? Why and how did you decide to come to UNSW?

In 1989-1990, the Australian government was trying to encourage International students to come over to study in Australian Universities. Under the then Australian International and Development Assistance Bureau scheme (AIDAB) they had a division of the Equity and Merit Scholarship Scheme (EMSS) which was widely advertised in newspapers in Kenya for students who obtained First class honours degree to apply. The previous year (1990) before I was awarded the AIDAB/EMSS scholarship , about four Kenyan students ( 1 Maths, 1 English, 2 Chemistry) from Kenyatta University were matched up with suitable supervisors in La Trobe University, University of Queensland, University of Western Sydney and University of New South Wales , and that is how I was taken to go to UNSW from 1991-1995. The Scholarship was very generous and covered accommodation, medical expenses for me and my nuclear family. My son, Charles was born at St Margaret’s hospital in Darlinghurst Sydney, on 17 May 1992.

What does gaining a PhD (from UNSW) mean to you?

Just obtaining a PhD in the 90’s in Kenya was great and saw many PhD graduates rise to important positions in the government research institutions and Universities. Gaining an international PhD meant that I was highly mobile, after all if I had left Kenya to study abroad, I could also travel outside the country to take up job positions in other countries. There were also fewer people with PhDs at the time, so I was highly marketable, and this provided me with job security. Apart from the practical side of gaining a PhD there was also the pride of having knowledge and personal advancement. Moreover, the fact that my PhD was obtained from UNSW, was a big advantage, as the University has a good academic reputation.

A Short-term Research Visit March-June 2011 Sponsored by OPCW – what does this involve?

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is based in The Hague, the Netherlands. The OPCW is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The most important obligation under the Convention is the destruction of chemical weapons. The Organisation’s international cooperation programmes focus on capacity building for the peaceful applications of chemistry in areas which are relevant to the CWC, and also extends the benefits of peaceful uses of chemistry to all individuals of member states, by sponsoring internship programmes. The purpose of the OPCW Internship Programme is to expose citizens of member states (Kenya is a member state) to the activities of the OPCW, and enable one to enhance his/her educational experience through practical work in chemistry research activities. Thus the intern visits a laboratory with advanced research facilities hosted by an expert in the area of research interest.

In my own case, the organization sponsored me to visit UNSW for 3 months to establish collaboration with my former supervisor Prof Brynn Hibbert as well as gain skills in electrochemical biosensors and chemometrics (statistical methods of data treatment). This visit was meant to enhance my skills base, as well as renew my existing links with the School of Chemistry. By the time I had to travel to UNSW, I had just started a new position at the University of Johannesburg and I had to juggle my new teaching and research commitments to travel to UNSW for two visits in March and June 2011. After this visit, I planned to continue the collaboration with Prof Hibbert who has already visited my former University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban in South Africa, in two occasions (Nov 2009 and Nov 2010) and given workshops on chemometrics and chemical senors.

Head of Applied Chemistry Department at Johannesburg University, what does this involve?

As the current Head of Applied Chemistry Department, I continue to lecture in analytical /environmental chemistry, conduct research, recruit and supervise postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows, mentor junior lecturers as well as source for funding nationally (South Africa companies and funding institutions) and internationally (examples, OPCW in Netherlands; international foundation for scienceS, IFS in Sweden; Third World Academy of Sciences, TWAS in Trieste, Italy). At the same, I have to give service to the community through outreach programs Currently I have 8 PhD students and 6 Masters students. 5 PhD and 2 MSc students completed their degrees in 2011 and 2012; 3 PhD and 3 MSc students will complete end of 2013. I still have 3 students (1 PhD & 2 MSc) still registered at my former institution,  University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa.

Describe your research.

My MSc dissertation at Kenyatta University which I graduated in Sept 1992 was submitted just before proceeding to UNSW in 1991. The work focused on the leaching of aluminium in cookware. Whilst at UNSW I wrote 3 research papers, mainly on the development of new detection methods using aluminum wire for indirect detection of F- and Al3+, and polymer coated wire ion-selective electrodes for nitrates and chlorides. The wire electrodes were designed in single and multiple designs using flow cells. Currently, I concentrate on application rather than fundamental analytical methods. Thus water research features heavily in my current field, as It is a scarce commodity in Africa. I am interested mainly in the determination of water pollutants, and their removal using functionalized chemical resins and biomass as adsorbents. These materials are intended to purify water at an affordable cost, by rural communities in Africa. My research students do carry out electrospinning of biopolymers such as cellulose and chitosan to produce nanofibers that are packed in cartridges for water purification. We have applied these materials for removal of metals and inorganic anions from contaminated water.

2011 was the International Year of Chemistry as decreed by UNESCO. It aimed to raise global awareness for Chemistry as well as coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie—an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to science. How is the education of women viewed in South Africa?

South Africa is among the many African countries that today encourages women to pursue education, in previously male-dominated science fields. Most institutions including the government, when awarding funding in form of scholarships or research projects, give priority to women. There is also a conscious effort on the part of the Universities to improve job prospects for black academics. Moreover, the South African government is actively trying to attract women, in particular, black women into science. In fact, currently, when applying for research funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF) which is the central funding agency of the Government‘s Department the of Science and Technology (DST). When recruiting postgraduate students, A supervisor is likely to score more “points” if you can show that you will be employing black female science students in your research group.

Who inspires you?

My role models are women who have made it in a man’s world, whether in education, business or politics. When I was in primary school, I looked up to my elder sister, Teresia (6 years my senior). She is now a successful business lady in Nairobi. However, I am equally motivated by men who have made it to the top through hard work in their fields. The USA President, Mr Barack Obama inspires me just as much as Ms Oprah Winfrey, the USA talk-show icon, does. Whilst at UNSW I was fortunate enough to witness my supervisor Prof Brynn Hibbert become the Head of School (1994-1996) and previously Head of Analytical Chemistry Department (twice 1987-1994 and later 1996-1999). This move was very inspiring! Soon I hope to achieve the same status.

When I obtained my PhD in 1995 and went back to Nairobi, Kenya, I made an appointment with Mr James Mackenzie my former O’Level (secondary school) chemistry teacher (he taught me the ‘mole theory’) who was by then a Director in the Ministry of Finance in Kenya Government, to personally thank him for inspiring me to pursue chemistry as my main subject, up till now.