Female Climate Change Researcher – Celestine Atieno Oliewo

Meet Celestine, a PhD student in Sustainable Development and Climate Change. In this interview, she runs us through her STEM journey, how she switched from Actuarial Science to Mathematical Sciences, and finally Climate Science, and why;

Hi, Celestine! It is wonderful to catch up again. I think we last met in 2022 in Kigali. A mutual friend, Patience Akatuhwera, recommended you for this interview. Welcome to Words That Count!
Hello, Winnie! I am very flattered! Thanks to Patience for the recommendation.

Briefly introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Celestine Atieno Oliewo from Kenya. I am currently pursuing my PhD in Sustainable Development and Climate Change (PhD SDC) at Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori (IUSS Pavia), in Italy. My project involves taking aerosol in-situ measurements to analyze the effect of new particle formation on levels of nanoparticles in urban areas. The project further explores the correlation of these particles to meteorological variables and gaseous precursors, and their overall impact on urban air quality. We aim to contribute to a deeper understanding of urban pollution and its effects on the environment.

I am interested in how your STEM journey has been, leading to your current focus on climate change
It is funny how life takes unexpected turns! If anyone had told me when I was younger, or even during my master’s program, that I would pursue a PhD, I would have thought they were dreaming.

I always loved school from a young age, it was, kind of, my safe space, especially after losing my dad. My passion for learning, my drive to honor my father’s memory, my determination to overcome my challenging circumstances, and my relentless pursuit of academic excellence fueled my success throughout primary and secondary education, allowing me to achieve strong academic performance.

Joining university, I chose to do a BSc in Actuarial Science since it was the most ‘marketable’ course at the time and for the love of math (which I later came to learn was statistics rather). Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, I was not able to do the necessary professional exams to become a qualified Actuary. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I was fortunate to land a job at a bank, where my banking career began to flourish. However, three years later, I felt the need for a new challenge.

I applied for and received the AIMS scholarship in Ghana to pursue a Masters in Mathematical Sciences. During my master’s program, I met Prof. Nana Ama Browne Klutse, whose lectures and seminars sparked my interest in climate science. So, I decided to carry out my research project in climate change.

Upon returning home to Kenya, I felt compelled to delve deeper into the field of climate science, leading me to apply for PhD positions. After applying to about five positions, I finally secured my current project.

Let us talk about some of the challenges you have faced on your STEM journey
My biggest challenges have been financial, especially at the start of my career path. That is why I had to switch from Actuarial Science. I am not sure if this is a challenge or part of the process! Delving into a rather ‘new’ field at an advanced level of study requires returning to the basics mostly in your own time to make sense of the advanced topics.

Another challenge was studying outside my home country for the first time. I encountered many differences like culture, food, and language which to some extent made the experience hard.

Amidst these challenges, how are you able to push forward?
I would say it is my strong pursuit of academic success. I also have a small but very encouraging support system. My other motivation is the desire to undertake new challenges in life. Lastly, I want to make my dad proud even in his absence (I have always been a daddy’s girl😊).

Tell us about some of the very prestigious moments, especially in your career path
During my masters at AIMS Ghana, I received the FKA Allotey award for a distinction in Masters in Mathematical Science. I am also very proud to be an Africademics scholarship ambassador. During my earlier years, I was among the top 100 girls nationally in high school leaving exams (K.C.S.E 2012).

Who is Celestine outside of the climate change umbrella?
I am a mother, a friend, a cheerleader, and a mentor.

What’s your favorite quote?
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford.

I am not sure who said this second quote but I will try to paraphrase it. “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room”.

What are your words of encouragement for a young African girl interested in climate change research?
Surround yourself with the right crowd, they will tell you what you do not see in yourself. Failing is okay, rise, dust off, and try again, applying the lessons learned from the setback.

Thank you, Celestine, for sharing your STEM journey with us. We wish you all the best with your PhD studies.

You can also find Celestine on Github: https://github.com/COLIEWO

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