A major reason why I started this blog, is to highlight women doing science that I admire. So welcome to the new category that I have named “STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine) Role Models”.
On my first episode of science role models, I spoke with Ms Tochukwu Ozulumba (TO), a final year PhD candidate at the University of Brighton. She shares her self-care tips, her thoughts on science communication in Nigeria and some advice for young scientists. She explains the impact of volunteering on her career, relevant skills young scientists should acquire and tips for earning a scholarship.
Can you tell us a little about you? Three things you like to introduce yourself with.
TO: My name is Tochukwu Ozulumba. I am a final year PhD student at the University of Brighton, United Kingdom. I am also a Biochemistry lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
How did you decide on becoming a scientist?
TO: Growing up, I excelled in science subjects and so it felt natural to pursue a career in science.
Were you ever discouraged from going into science as a girl?
What are your science interests?
TO: My research interest is focused on the development of biomaterial strategies for biotoxin removal from tissues during infection and chronic disease.
Can you share a short story of your science journey so far? What drew your interest to cell biology, microbiology and nanomaterials science?
TO: I received my Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from UNN in 2011. I was the Best Graduating Student in my undergraduate cohort and was appointed as a Graduate Teaching Assistant by the university. In 2015, I completed a Master’s degree in Biochemistry (UNN) and secured a PhD studentship, with a defined research project, at the University of Brighton. I was drawn to that particular project because it shared similar components with my Master’s project and also because it was multi-disciplinary.
Your study is cross-disciplinary and perhaps broad; is it easy for you to keep up?
TO: Yes. My Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry had a significant chemistry component which has been very useful in my research project. Also, I like that I get to work across disciplinary boundaries.
How was it for you moving to another country for your PhD?
TO: It was not as challenging as would be anticipated mainly because it was a dream come true for me. Also, I had friends who were pursuing postgraduate studies abroad so I roughly knew what to expect.
What are some possible real-world applications of your work?
TO: A potential application is in the development of extracorporeal (outside the body) blood purification therapies to remove biotoxins that build up during infection and chronic disease e.g. sepsis and kidney failure.
What is the favourite aspect of your work?
TO: When experiments work! (PhD students will agree with me). More specifically, connecting the dots to understand how nanomaterial properties influence their performance and interactions with cells.
Have you had any unexpected outcome while doing your work?
TO: Yes. Some positive, others negative. When things fail, you learn the lesson and move on to the next strategy.
You have won a number of awards; how does it feel to be recognized and celebrated?
TO: I am very grateful to God for the good success I have experienced. Winning feels really amazing and with each win, I am inspired to do more and conquer new territories. I must also add that I have had my fair share of rejections as well. The key is to keep putting in the work, it will eventually pay off.
Throughout your journey, have you had a lot of female colleagues or mentors?
TO: I have been extremely privileged to have a female supervisor who is very supportive. I also have female friends who either have completed or are still studying for a PhD which has made the journey better.
What does science communication mean to you?
TO: Science communication simply means letting everyday people on the streets know what I do in the lab, why it is important and why they should care about it.
What do you think of science communication in Nigeria currently? Does the public understand the work being done by scientists?
TO: I think the Nigerian science communication landscape is gradually shaping up. Definitely, there are significant gaps when compared to developed nations. More work needs to be done to raise public awareness about the work scientists do, the different career options in science and generally inspire scientific curiosity.
Has volunteering helped you learn any skills or has it been relevant to your career?
TO: Yes. Volunteering has particularly improved my communication and project management skills. I have also gained new knowledge – in 2017, I volunteered at Soapbox Science Brighton which introduced me to the world of science communication. In 2018, I went on to speak at Soapbox Science Brighton which opened the door to other opportunities.
Please, can you share some links to any of your published works?
• Paper 1: Rapid adsorption of pro-inflammatory cytokines by graphene nanoplatelets and their composites for extracorporeal detoxification
• Paper 2: MXene Sorbents for Removal of Urea from Dialysate – a Step Towards the Wearable Artificial Kidney
• Science communication article: Open Research: Much Ado About Nothing?
Do you have any tips for other aspiring international students (especially from Nigeria)?
TO: When applying for scholarships, do not be too selective, put your best foot forward and be ready to face rejections. Remember that all you need is one Yes. Do your homework ahead of time and prepare accordingly. Seek out people who have gone before you e.g. current students on your course or previous scholarship recipients and get their insights.
What are some skills you would advise a young scientist/science undergraduate to learn now (something they probably won’t be taught in school)?
TO: Critical thinking, problem-solving, presenting, scientific writing, and statistical analysis. Develop the habit of reading scholarly publications so you are acquainted with global standards of research and the current hot topics. In addition, data science and programming are currently huge deals so you may want to consider acquiring relevant IT skills.
University is a great time to explore and hone your skills without undue pressures e.g. fear of failure and the need for a stable income, so take advantages of the opportunities around you.
What advice will you give a fresh graduate of biochemistry/ biology/ biotechnology?
TO: Develop a life plan – think about what you want to get out of life, how you need to accomplish that and follow through with its execution.
Do you think there are a lot of opportunities for scientists in Nigeria?
TO: Presently, not as many as expected but I believe things are improving with time. There is also a lack of awareness about alternative science careers to the traditional Medicine, Pharmacy and Engineering paths.
What are some of your self-care activities/tips?
TO: I have learnt to take time out and relax because if you fall sick, the world keeps moving without you. Enjoy each moment as it comes. I love listening to music, pleasure reading and watching TV series centred on medicine and law.
What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
TO: Be more self-aware. You can do all things through Christ – no challenge is unsurmountable and no distinction is beyond your reach.
Tochukwu Ozulumba expresses her gratitude to the University of Brighton for sponsoring her PhD.
You can connect with her on LinkedIn (http://linkedin.com/in/tozulumba)
Thank you for reading!