Interdisciplinary Research Scientist – Esther Achieng Onyango

Learning about Esther’s skills in climate change and health risks gets one amazed at how good women can be at multiple tasks. She has a skill-set in microbiology, laboratory, field and ecological research, multi-stakeholder engagement, and policy analysis. Her story is the definition of interdisciplinary research;

Hi, Esther! Thank you for sparing time to join us on this episode of Words That Count. We thank Maggy for leading us to your beautifully unique story
Hi Winnie, thanks for reaching out! I love the work that you’re doing – so inspiring! It’s humbling to read the stories of all these amazing women and am happy to be part of them on your platform. I must say I was pleasantly surprised when you reached out, haha!

Haha, thank you for the kind words, Esther!

Please introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Esther Achieng Onyango, originally from Kenya, but currently living and working in Brisbane, Australia. I now define myself as an interdisciplinary research scientist because I have a diverse background that doesn’t fit in one particular STEM field anymore.

My training background is in biological sciences but I have worked in industry, specifically in Pharmaceutical and Environmental Microbiology. I later transitioned into academia as an environmental scientist for climate change and health. So I hit opposite sides of the spectrum; one was lab science-based, and the other was ecological research. Somewhere across that spectrum, I have also done policy work, engaging with policymakers and using research findings to develop tools for policy.

The good thing is that I have a diversity of skill-set I have picked up along the way. The not-so-good thing is that I don’t fit into any specific field of STEM. Maybe at this specific moment, I would consider myself as a climate change and health scientist.

Now, walk us through your STEM journey; how has it been like for you?
This is interesting because growing up I was so much into reading books. I would read anything and everything that is written so I thought for a while I would become a writer. But being an African like I am, writing at the time wasn’t viewed as a career, haha.

Long story short, I decided to focus on my other interest, which was biology and I joined the university as a pre-med student in the US. So in the US, you do a general degree and major either in chemistry or biology, then into medical school. I had liked biology throughout high school and did well in it but didn’t want to go into medical school and study medicine. So I decided to go into industry – pharmaceutical industry and worked there for a while.

After about 7 years there a few other things happened and I realized I didn’t want to retire in there. I wasn’t ready to have that as a job for the next 30-40 years of my life. The next logical career step would have been going for a Ph.D. but I didn’t want to do that in lab science research.

Through a period of soul-searching, I quit my job; put in my resignation, packed my bags, and went to Kenya. I lived on my savings for a few months trying to figure out what to do and continued networking. Through one of my contacts, I was alerted about this position in a research project that was being advertised about climate change and funded by the Kofi Anan Foundation. I hadn’t done any work in climate change but had had an interest in the environment from a young age.

It was an exciting job because it was in a field I was passionate about and was becoming a critical issue. Plus, it took me out of the lab environment and that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to be involved in community research. This was 4-5 months after I had left the US and the project was to be in western Kenya, in a place called Uyoma. Until this project, I had no idea where this place was, haha. So I came from the US, straight into a remote village in Kenya, and stayed there for 6 months with a colleague of mine as the project went on.

It was quite an interesting experience; it pushed me out of my comfort zone in many ways and I also learned a lot, expanding my skill-set. I gained experience in social research, community assessment, social science methods. From that, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do for a Ph.D. and put together a proposal about climate change and human health research. I sent it around to a few places and got swiftly rejected because I had no background in climate change, social science, or public health.

One of them was brutal; “what makes you think you can do this coming from a lab science background?”. However, it is not easy to deter me once I set out to achieve a goal. I am the kind of person who persists with an idea once it makes sense in my head and typically sees things through to the end; something that has been good sometimes and not so good other times. So I just kept going and fortunately, my brother who was here in Australia told me about the focus on climate change that his university was taking. They were really into interdisciplinary methods, which my proposal was about. He had wanted me to come to Australia for like 5 years, haha, this was his time. He asked for my proposal and pushed me to apply.

My proposal impressed the university; they liked the interdisciplinary aspect of it but were also willing to give me the training that I needed. That’s how I landed here in Australia to do my Ph.D. at Griffith and l stayed on since. I am now working as a research fellow there in climate change and vector-borne diseases. I am studying how climate change is changing the pattern of diseases but also how communities are coping with the risks and how they are helping to solve these issues. So I integrate public health, climate science disease ecology, and social science in my work.

What challenges do you face as someone without a specific box of science?
I feel like there’s always a higher bar for me to prove myself. I face a higher degree of imposter syndrome. For example, the other day when I was putting together a proposal, I realized that I have been doing climate change for almost 10 years now but I still feel like I am new to the field. This may reduce over time as I define myself in my interdisciplinary career space.

Another challenge is my transition from industry into academia. I did my Ph.D. later in life compared to the majority of people here. So imagine doing a Ph.D. and being considered as an early career researcher but I have this other experience that doesn’t count in terms of my research experience! It’s a very interesting experience because I have a wealth of work exposure yet in academia I am still a young researcher. This contributes to me needing to constantly prove myself more than other people.

What helps you beat this imposter syndrome?
Just keep doing it! What inspires me to keep going is when I see an idea that I had come to fruition and realize that I am achieving what I want. The feedback from people around me also plays a very big role in helping with that. I am very fortunate to work with some of the leading researchers in their fields. When they comment about my work and say it’s great, this helps me feel less imposter-ish.

I also believe that we all struggle in different kinds of ways. There are times I have spoken with colleagues who seem very confident and assured about their work, only to realize that they all sometimes face the impostor syndrome now and again. It is part of the journey.

Most importantly, when all the noise is gone and there’s no one to evaluate me, I love the career space that I am in and the endless possibilities. That makes me wake up excited to get to work every single day. Previously I didn’t see myself retiring while doing what I was doing, now I can. Once one finds their passion, they always find a way to overcome all kinds of imposter syndrome. It also counts to have a good support system around you.

Let’s talk about your prestigious moments along this journey
For me, the most prestigious one was when my thesis came back with absolutely no corrections and was shortlisted for a University Chancellor’s medal. It wasn’t an easy thesis to do; I had a steep learning curve with my research methods, techniques, almost everything. All this was way out of my comfort zone! I was trying to integrate a lot of things but because I like a challenge, it made me tickle, haha. My examiners were 2 of the leading researchers in climate health. I was worried about their comments. This was one of the moments I realized I was on the right path.

There have also been other awards related to the thesis, invitations to speak at different conferences and symposia, being recognized as one of the African women scientists on the frontlines of climate change, by the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Women in Stem Initiative, and more recently, featured in a Google Arts and Culture online exhibition celebrating achievements of girls and women worldwide, curated by Women of the World (WoW) Foundation.

How do you spend your free time?
I have a lively 5-year-old girl. We are both quite adventurous so we get into a lot of activities together. This has helped me rediscover my love for adventure and we are always out doing several things. I am also an adrenaline junkie and have done sky diving, ziplining and looking forward to doing a bungee jump soon. Apart from that, I try to stay active when I have time; jogging, functional training, and recently cardio boxing.

 

What is your favourite quote?
I have a few but there’s this one that always sticks with me. It comes from Steve Job’s lecture that he gave in 2005. The entire lecture has stuck with me but at the end of it he says, “stay hungry, stay foolish”. The way I interpret this is to never stop going for what you want and never fall into the folly of thinking you know everything – learning is never-ending; so, stay hungry, passionate, motivated, and ‘foolish’ enough to yearn for a lesson every day.

There’s a young girl who is passionate about STEM but can’t find her ground. How would you encourage them?
Start with small steps and with people around you. Talk to the people around you, you might talk to someone who knows someone who can get you to where you want to be. Don’t be afraid to articulate your dream to someone else. Most times we think our dreams are impossible and might be foolish or make someone else laugh at us.

Don’t allow external voices to influence you negatively. Believe in yourself enough to achieve what you want. More importantly, do not fall into the trap of just being. When you find yourself in a place where you feel your career no longer serves you as it is, then don’t be afraid of starting over. It can be hard particularly if you don’t have people around you to help you. However, life has this way of bringing you what you need; like when you get to this space of being very sure about what you want and set your intentions accordingly, life somehow brings you closer to opportunities that will get you where you need to go.

Thank you, Esther, for taking the time to speak with me. I know it was quite late on your end but you have saved time for me. I appreciate your time, thank you!

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