As a Research Scientist, Justina’s interest is in the areas of economics of innovation and development, poverty analysis, policy analysis, agricultural/rural development, enterprise development, food security, productivity and efficiency analysis, innovation systems, value chain analysis, and technology transfer. Learn about how she uses her STEM experience to achieve her career goals;
Hello, Justina! Thank you for joining us today on Words That Count. We are ready to get empowered through your story
Hello, Winnie! Thank you for hosting me as well. It is a great honor and privilege to be here today.
Give us a brief introduction about yourself, for the sake of the audience
My name is Justina Onumah from Ghana. Professionally, I am a Senior Research Scientist at the CSIR-Science & Technology Policy Research Institute, an institute mandated to conduct knowledge-based research that contributes to the formulation and implementation of policies and programs for socioeconomic development in Ghana. My actual field of expertise is the economics of innovation and development within the context of Agriculture and Micro Small Medium Enterprise (MSME) development and the rural development space. This is where my research lies.
Besides this, I do a lot of STEM advocacy, especially with girls. My work is towards bridging the gender-STEM gap, through mentorship and capacity building. I believe that girls need people like us to talk to. We are instrumental in their decision-making and going forward in life. This line of work doesn’t give me money [haha] but it gives me fulfillment and joy.
I enjoy listening to and engaging in discussions that intersect sciences or research with policy!
Justina, walk us through your journey to becoming a Research Scientist in the agricultural field
My path has not been a path that I chose for myself. It was less about passion and more about circumstances. Growing up, I did not have many options for me to choose from in terms of career. My interesting background has a lot to do with the environment I grew up in. As a child, I was very conscious of myself and I thank God for that. I have always been very careful because I thought the environment I grew up in was going to affect me negatively. There were not many people who were achievers that I would look up to and desire to follow. Almost everyone was at the base and that did little inspiration for me.
[Un]fortunately for me, my parents and teachers knew that I was academically inclined. I was always the icon in my school or as we call it – a village champion, haha. Even with this “gift”, I was not directed into knowing what field of study to choose, and what we call core STEM subjects was one. The choice of studying Agricultural Science was against my will. When choosing programs for senior high school, I knew for sure that I did not want to choose the sciences because I had heard complaints about how hard it was on that side. I wanted fancy careers like becoming a lawyer, newscaster, …you know!
The moment I asked my teacher for choice forms, I was informed that they had selected a program for me. Curious as I was, I asked what my choice had been. When the teacher said “Agricultural Science”, I almost lost my mind. “Why do you want me to become a farmer!”, I exclaimed. At the time, farming was all I knew about agriculture so I was not enthused at all! I wondered why he did not at least give me natural sciences instead of agricultural science!
It was when I got to senior high school that I realized that agricultural science was not farming. It was Physics, Chemistry, Elective Maths/Animal science, and General Agriculture. So that is how I ended up in Agricultural Science. It was against my will, haha. In fact, I tried to change to the Arts Program but upon arriving at school I was told that the Arts classes were full.
I always tell people that whatever life throws at you, you can turn it into something good. The truth is, sometimes it is even God’s path for you! I accepted my fate as an Agricultural Science student and I made the best out of it.
So, how do you transition from Agricultural Sciences into Development Studies? How do you start incorporating your STEM knowledge into policy?
Once I started enjoying the program I realised that Chemistry was my favourite subject. I am not sure if it was the teacher that made it interesting or if I was just good at it. I then wanted to become a Pharmacist because I was good at Chemistry. However, because I had no mentor, I wondered what else I could do in pharmacy apart from opening up a pharmacy shop! What if I didn’t have money to do that after school, what would become of me? I did not know that I could use my knowledge to contribute to drug-manufacturing processes, work in hospitals, … I simply had no idea of career options available in such STEM fields.
Joining the university, I wanted to shift to Food Science and Technology but I did not get into that program. I was instead admitted into Agricultural Sciences – again, haha. This is what I meant when I said that I was not presented with many options to choose from. I was just following the trajectory and making the best out of the circumstances.
At the university, we did all the hardcore sciences like biochemistry, a bit of agricultural engineering, and all the other applied science subjects you can think of. During my final year, we had to specialize but by then, I wanted to work in a bank. This was because one of the Agricultural Economics graduates visited with information about bank opportunities. That was when I had a big tone-down from the hard-core STEM subjects. So, I specialized in Agricultural Economics and did the same at the masters level at the University of Ghana.
After my masters, I worked for four years before doing my Ph.D. My work then focused on development issues, science and technology, and innovation. This experience drove my passion for what my Ph.D. studies would be about. Besides my work in that line, the available funding also decided my choice of program. I, however, still carried my Agricultural Economics knowledge very closely because I knew that Development Studies were very multi-disciplinary. My thesis is mainly about Agricultural Innovations and some economics of the innovations. Right now, my niche is the economics of innovation and development within the agricultural sector and MSME.
Listening to your story brings up a lot of questions about how difficult your journey was! Tell us about those challenging moments
Sometimes I choose my words very carefully because if you tell a young African girl to follow the wind as it blows, that has a high chance of backfiring. Looking back I realize that the most challenging thing was not having people to look up to so I just followed the process. Honestly, it could have landed me in a very dangerous position. Maybe I would not have been making as much impact as I am making right now. That was a very slippery path I followed! I am just blessed and graced that the path was still okay to land me where I am right now.
The genesis of all my challenges is connected to family. We started in a very good school but there was a family disintegration at some point and we the children had to bear the brunt, unfortunately. From Grade 6, I never went to an A-list school. I was trying so hard to make good grades that could compete nationally. If I had stayed in a good school, I would have benefited from career guidance sessions, better resources, and tutoring.
How were you able to navigate those challenging times and still hold onto a future that you believed you deserved?
As mentioned earlier, I have always been very careful in life. Whatever I was doing at that point, was my focus. For example, when I went to senior high school, all I knew was school and books. I was not an introvert – I can not be, haha – but I kept to myself. My biggest tool was not allowing anything to distract me. I knew where I was coming from and did my best to not have those circumstances repeated either for me or my future family.
The truth is that I did not know where I was heading but I was determined to keep my eye on the goal – whatever the goal was to be. All I had was a glimpse of a future that was different from my past. So, I kept my eye on what I needed to do now to get to that unknown future.
With all the hard work, there must have come celebrations, moments of recognition, and achievements. Let’s talk about those.
Haha, God has been good!
I have been fortunate to have some fellowships and recognitions along the way. I remember going for a grant interview during my Ph.D. and one of the panelists commented about me having scholarships at every point in my education journey. She asked me what kind of investment I had made personally for myself. I told her the investment was me putting in the hard work to merit all those scholarships. So I have been blessed with academic scholarships along the way. During my Ph.D. studies, I received the overall best-graduating student in Development Studies, which was very humbling.
Besides my academic rewards, the biggest highlight would be the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which has opened up a lot of opportunities for me, especially with my girls in STEM activities. Also between 2019 and 2022, I was the ambassador for Ghana for the Next Einstein Forum. That period made me contribute more to the STEM space, especially for girls. With all this support, I will be launching an initiative this year to officially carry out my STEM activities.
Professionally, I recently received the Africa Evidence Leadership Award for the evidence producer category. This award recognizes researchers in the evidence and policy space. I will be picking the award from Uganda in September. That was a recognition of my Science Diplomacy contribution. This award makes me believe that I am doing something important in connecting science and diplomacy. I have also had Visiting Researcher positions at Cornell University, the World Bank, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) through USAID’s STAAARS+ program. It has been a good journey for me by God’s grace.
I am trying not to go off the book and ask all the other questions I want to ask, haha. Your story is very interesting to me – I know I am saying this again!
Anyways, we have seen you in all professional and busy spaces, but, who is Justina outside of work?
I am a mother of three girls – God chose to bless me that much, haha. I don’t know if it is because I am very passionate about empowering girls. Hopefully, when someone asks them who their biggest inspiration is someday, they will mention me. Otherwise, I think I will have failed as their mother. If I am not able to inspire my own daughters then I am doing nothing with the rest of the girls I mentor. My girls are my biggest inspiration.
I am a wife to a University Professor, who is also a Pastor, so by convention, I am a church mom. In that direction, I specialize in the singles and the youth where I still take my mentorship skills into those spaces. I try to have fun, I really try but do I succeed? I don’t even know… haha.
What is your favorite quote at the moment?
I have more than one actually, they are three from different people but are intersected;
1. “You must be the change you need to see in the world” ~ Mahatma Gandi. I think this is a very powerful quote! If you do not like what you see around you then do not contribute to it. Allow yourself to contribute to the change. For example, I did not get the kind of life I wanted while growing up. So, I do what I do now to make it different and better for anyone coming after me, especially girls.
2. “Life is like a bicycle, to keep your balance you need to keep moving” ~ Albert Einstein. You might be afraid about life but to reap anything good out of it, you need to keep moving. You might not know what is at the end of the tunnel but you have to keep going. This resonates so much with my life and coming from Einstein I am already biased..haha.
3. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt. For me to feel like as a girl I can not study science, it means I have allowed people to define me that way. Because of this, my initiative will be focusing on raising strong, bold, and smart girls to lead. Once you are empowered, you do not allow room for anyone to make you feel inferior.
What is your word of encouragement for a young African girl who would like to become a Research Scientist?
Picking from the quotes I shared, young girls should know that nobody said that the journey would be easy. STEM is beautiful but challenging because we are trying to come up with solutions to existing challenges. But this does not mean that we should give up.
We have to know that the boys or men do not find STEM less challenging than we do! The only difference is that they are not willing to give up when things get hard. You just have to keep your focus and find people to talk to. Just look out for people whose journeys you admire. And, most surprisingly, people are ready to share their knowledge with you.
So, it is important for girls to know that whatever they do in STEM is part of a solution. There is nothing more fulfilling than that. It is not only encouragement for them to pursue but also persist and succeed when they join the field.
Thank you very much, for sharing your life with us, and through us to the world. We now have a better understanding of what a Research Scientist does. Looking forward to learning more about your work.