Heard of Plant Tissue Culture? – Pauline Asami Okemo

 

I got to know Pauline from LinkedIn, through a mutual friend called Maggy T. Sikulu-Lord. Pauline is a very jolly person, with a certain warmth to her speech. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

Hi Pauline. Thank you for accepting to join us today!
Hi Winnie. I am happy to be here, thank you too.

What is your full name?
My full name is Pauline Asami Okemo. After my recent graduation, people now call me Dr. Okemo – which has a nice tone to it, haha.

What do you do currently?
I am currently working as a researcher at Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), which is based at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. I will be transitioning into a Postdoctoral Fellowship soon, within the same organisation.

How has your STEM journey been like?
Hm! Where do I begin with my history!

I was born in Nairobi, to parents that believed so much in education! My father is a professor and my mother was very active in the Kenyan education sector. So for us going to school wasn’t an option – we had to go to school, haha. All my early school days were in Nairobi; primary, high school and undergraduate. Having my father as a professor was somehow hard because he always mentioned that I had to do better than him! It was and still is tough because I don’t think I can even achieve half of what he has achieved so far!

I went to a university called Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. That’s where I got the drive to start looking at science – biotech to be specific – because I did a degree in biotechnology. I remember one time during our practical session in the plant tissue culture unit, our university had this big project where they were supplying tissue culture bananas to farmers in Kenya. They really needed the conditions to be sterile! So as students, we were just passing by and peeped through the lab to see what they were doing. I was so fascinated by the fact that one could grow plants in a jar without soil – that was just magic to me! It was something that was out of this world – mind blowing actually! So I decided to be part of something that interesting.

For my internship, I went to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute which is now Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), and did tissue culture of bananas there. I also remember after my degree, I really wanted to get a job but it was hard. So I decided to go back to school and get a masters degree. I amazingly did a project which also involved tissue culture – I just couldn’t let it go! I worked with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and was supervised by a brilliant lady. She is one person who gave me the morale to continue with science. She was a strong woman and I looked up to her during that time and figured that if she could do it, I could also do it. I was lucky to be guided by her throughout my masters research. It was good that I had that connection with her because it’s what landed me into the International Livestock Research Institute where I did the project about regeneration of pigeon pea. I immensely studied on genetic engineering of crops, specifically pigeon peas.

We are the people everyone loves to crucify but if you critically look at things, Genetically Modified (GM) crops are not as bad as people think they are! It’s just misinformation that’s out there. Most of this ill-branding of GM foods is just political. People need to start getting full information about these crops – not just the crops but the entire process and technology that goes into it. Sure there are some evil stories but if you weigh the pros and cons, you can make an informed judgment on your own.

So, once I finished my masters, I decided to look for a job and got one as a research assistant at Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa, which is still based at the International Livestock Research Institute. My work here was to help other researchers from across the region with their research and train them so that they are able to go back to their research institutes with skills to enable them do their research independently. That job was fulfilling and I truly enjoyed my time there. They had enough funding, state of the art technology, highly skilled and talented people to help researchers advance in their technical skills and knowledge. It was a good time!

After some time, I realised that I wanted more because I was looking at all these people that were coming through and being trained. Most of them went on to do great things in their institutions, countries, and internationally. I particularly looked at women because to me it was personal. All the way from my mother, to my masters supervisor, and now these ladies coming in for research skills! I wanted to be in a space where my voice was being heard as a woman. I figured that in this world of science, I couldn’t fully cut it with just a masters degree.

In the height of summer 2016, I resigned from my job, packed my bags and moved to Queensland. I had no idea what to expect once in Australia, haha. I had only met an Australian boss who always spoke so fondly of the country. That was my comfort while moving there. I started my PhD on a totally different topic – different from my usual tissue culture. I am now grateful for that because it expanded my knowledge in the field and made me aware of other research areas close to what I knew. I was able to finish my PhD and graduate – that was 3 months ago. That’s how I got my current job as a researcher in Queensland.

What has been inspiring along this journey?
Knowing that I can do anything I put my mind to has been the most inspiring thing to me. Knowing that in this world we all have something to give – we live and breathe for a purpose. We are called to contribute in any space we find ourselves. What inspires me is knowing that I am where I am for a purpose and I have the support to move forward.

Something else that inspires me is looking at other women that have made it. People like Wangari Maathai who despite everything, was able to plant trees and fight for her cause. That’s just amazing! Looking at people like that, I sit back and realise that I can also contribute something important.

Looking forward, I get inspired knowing that I have the skills, capability, support, and voice that I need to make my contribution. I confidently do what I have to do to get to where I want to be.

How about the challenges?
My biggest challenge is impostor syndrome! This is bigger than I can explain! Some times it makes me feel like I am not good enough, not able, lack the capacity to do certain things,….. Every other day, I call myself for a meeting and discuss what I have achieved so far because of my ability, skills, talent, drive, and my hard work. It is a big challenge but I have figured out ways to overcome it when it shows up.

What are some of your achievements and awards? We want to celebrate you
One of the achievements I hold very close to my heart is the people that I worked with when I was a research assistant in Nairobi. Looking at the people that I trained, helped complete their projects, and walked with through the technical aspects of the scientific world amazes me. These people have gone ahead to become bosses who emphasise capacity building among their juniors, heads of departments, inspirations to younger people, etc.

I got a scholarship for my PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, for which upon completion, my thesis was nominated for an outstanding doctoral thesis – which was great!

I have also applied for permanent residence in Australia and I got a distinguished visa. This is a visa only given to people that have excelled in their area of study or career. It was largely based on the work that I was able to do back in Nairobi, coupled with my research here in Australia on drought tolerance, plus the outreaches I do. My outreaches mainly target young people to get them excited about joining university and pursuing STEM careers. I teach them how to ask scientific questions and figure out curious answers in the science realm.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I love visiting new places. I recently visited a regional area in Queensland called Stanthorpe which is beautiful! It is a rock-filled place with a castle. I went for an amazing wine tour there.

I also love visiting restaurants and sampling foods from all over the world. I have been experimenting with food from all parts of the world since I came to Australia – which is good but at this point, I need to check in to the gym, haha, because my clothes are not fitting any more, haha.

I love gardening too; I planted some flowers in my front yard – which look really amazing! I should remember to water them tomorrow.

I enjoy talking to and meeting new people because everybody has a story that will teach you a few things about life. You only have to listen to them and enjoy their journey with them.

What is your favourite quote?
Your mind is your prison when you focus on your fear” ~ Tim Fargo. This quote has gotten me to many places! We all have moments when we face problems and feel like there is no way out. Simple fears like, “how am I going to walk into that conference room and give a perfect presentation?” can be troubling! Good and bad news; it’s all in our heads! We have the authority to walk away from it and do the opposite, or listen to it and get sad. We can do anything that we put our mind to; may we always let that “anything” be positive.

What piece of advice would you like to give to a young girl in STEM?
It’s doable if you put your mind to it, work hard and are diligent enough. You have to know that there is nothing separating women in STEM from men in STEM; all this is just a myth. It was in early 1900s when people used to think that male careers were different from female careers, haha, we are in 2021 seriously! Women can do whatever we want! It has nothing to do with the brightest minds, but hard work, passion, determination and perseverance. There are times you will feel like everything is against you, but with perseverance, you can make it. Go ahead and aim for what you want so that you can be that person who inspires other young girls. So, make a plan, go for it, conquer, and be good at it.

Thank you Pauline for the wonderful time. It is an honour to write your story. Looking forward to hearing more amazing stories about you.

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