I got to know Judith through LinkedIn after part of her story was posted in a group called Girls in Science and Technology – GIST, based in Ghana. Thankfully, she was positive about sharing her story with us. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hi Judith, thank you very much for taking your time to talk to me!
Hello, Winnie! Nice to be here!
I will take you through a summary of why we do this, and then hand over to you for an introduction about yourself. The main aim is to reach as many young girls as possible; girls who love STEM but are scared of how society will perceive them. We want to give them examples of women who have made it in that field and are still going. For that, we welcome you here today. Over to you, lol!
My name is Judith Ampomah Owusu from Ghana. I am a Petroleum Geochemist at the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC).
Wow, I am excited to learn how you became a Petroleum Geochemist! You are the first I am meeting. Please tell us about your journey.
Yeah, my career is not very common out there, haha.
I grew up in a mining town, that’s first. I grew up seeing many mining engineers, so I always wanted to be like them. Surprisingly, it was not because of the science, haha…. they had these beautiful uniforms of khaki shirts and jeans, with their engineering boots. The look was so cool for me and I wanted to dress like that someday. That was my main source of inspiration, haha
But also, in my primary school, if a student happened to be a little intelligent, teachers would push them to choose science in high school. So I was introduced to science then and I liked it but I honestly didn’t know what kind of career I would get out of that. Like you said, we don’t have many people who come around in schools to give us these examples and motivation. My imagination about science from my teachers and parents was either to become a nurse or doctor but I honestly didn’t like the medical profession.
I remember the day an uncle of mine that I had never seen in my life came for a visit, from Russia. I was told he had been to school before I was born, haha… He did a lot of school outside Ghana. So I asked him what his occupation was and he said Petroleum Engineering. I said, “cool, I want to be like you then!”. With no idea about what it took to become one, I was just excited by the title. Throughout school, people pushed me to go for medicine and I kept saying yes, but in my mind I knew I wanted to be like my uncle – my cool uncle, haha.
After more questions about which choice of subjects to take, I was encouraged to go for chemistry because it was one of my favourite subjects. I didn’t know what else I could do with chemistry apart from food science as a quality control officer or laboratory related jobs! During holidays at university, I would do some work with the mining companies, either as a processing or mechanical engineer. In a way, I was preparing myself for the mines. My uncle called me again and told me that people around me might be into mining but there is a new wave coming. That was when Ghana had just discovered oil. He suggested that we try and get me into GNPC so that I could maybe form a new career path from there. After university, I had an opportunity to do my National Service at GNPC. This landed me into Geochemistry – something I had never heard of in my life!
There was this elderly man (may his soul rest in peace) who introduced me to something they had never done before in the corporation. He said since I had Chemistry, they would be glad to have me start on something in Geochemistry. So after my national service I got employed as a Petroleum Geochemist. That meant I was the very fast Geochemist they had but it came with lots of challenges. There was no one to learn from – the closest people had done just one course unit in Geochemistry while at university, but nothing broad about the topic. I got guidance from them while reading online, until I was able to go do my Masters in Petroleum Geochemistry. So that is how I ended up being a Petroleum Geochemist.
You need a standing ovation for accepting to take on a job without guidance or prior experience, yet you are expected to give output!
What have you found most challenging in life?
When I entered the industry, I found myself in an environment where everyone was coming from a Geology background. Geoscience is a big umbrella, with people in Geology, Geophysics, Petrophysics and all the other parts of it. I found myself as a woman, in an environment with men that had specialised in what was required at work! I came in with a chemistry background, ha-ha. In less than a year, I had to bring my Chemistry and combine it with the Geology that people had studied for 4 years at university. I had to learn it, understand it and be able to apply it as Geochemistry. My biggest challenges were two; having to learn everything in such a short time, and having no guidance while doing that. So by the time I went for my masters, I had a list of courses I needed for my employment back at home. The good thing is that in the UK, every course covered has a practical experience part of it. Every after a course, I would follow our instructors or lecturers back to their offices to ask how their days as Geochemists go, what they do in office, because I needed that experience.
Another challenge I faced was the fact that I am a woman. There were times decisions were taken without my contribution because people felt like it was okay to just have me informed about such decisions. Men naturally get along, talk to each other, and agree on certain things. They forget that I also need my opinion considered since I am part of the team! That was at the beginning though, haha. Now they come to me for my opinion. That initial treatment somehow pushed me to become the best at what I do, since no one else was doing it anyway! I started making sure there was always a need for them to come to me, and it has been like that since.
I strongly believe that our African schools need to start introducing a co-op option or at the very least, have people from industry come to schools for career days and motivation weeks. Anything in that line will make a huge difference for students – I know it did wonders for me while in the UK. We need someone from industry to come talk to final year high school students about the possibility of pursuing a certain program and what the possible job openings are after that.
What inspires you to keep pushing on every day?
I always feel like I have a huge burden on my shoulders for people who look up to me. Being one of the few Geochemists in Ghana is a big thing! I need to know that everything I do has someone learning from me. So, if I do it wrong, that’s what I am going to pass on to them.
The other thing that pushes me is, I like people to be surprised when they hear about the things I have been able to do. I just enjoy the “oh wow!!” expressions when my name pops up, ha-ha.
Most importantly, I keep pushing because I like inspiring other people. I combine myself-driven nature with the fact that people are looking up to me and work harder to deliver and be the best at what I do. I look at people in developed countries doing it and wonder why I can’t do it myself!
Who are you outside work?
Outside work, I like to look good! I always tell myself that I don’t want to be the boring science person. I remember back at university, I made a conscious decision to befriend people who were doing courses like tourism, business etc. Things that didn’t require too much seriousness. So, I would study with my course-mates, and later spend time with my other friends.
I love living – I love life, I enjoy traveling – been to at least every continent, I also play lawn tennis and enjoy programs that involve mentorship.
What have been some of your prestigious moments in life?
First, I am excited that now my company has employed other people who are also into Geochemistry. I am glad that I am now been able to structure a guidance program for other people to take up. I have also been able to contribute to people’s education in different ways. Mentorship and guiding people have been some of my biggest achievements; for example, there are people who come to do National Service and later send me emails indicating that the words of advice I gave them at some point helped them land a good job. Things like that make me very happy.
I was also selected as one of the 4 people from developing countries all over the world to be part of research about exploration for seabed minerals. I was the only one selected from Africa. I felt so good that when I got to Japan, I shopped with all the money I had, ha-ha….
During the first quarter of 2020, I was still selected among 18 people from Africa to represent the continent at the Headquarters of the International Seabed Authority, in Jamaica, as a consultant to a project that was going on.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“If you have been able to achieve it, own it” ~ Judith Ampomah Owusu. Naturally as women, we are taught not to celebrate our success all in the name of staying humble. But all these achievements are out of our own sweat and hard work! Why not celebrate them?
Lastly, a word of encouragement
This is my everyday joke; don’t let them lie to you that Mathematics is difficult! Don’t let them tell you that Physics is difficult! Truthfully, no Science subject is harder than walking in heels! Walking in heels is hard but you try walking in them anyway! So, if you can do that, you can do any STEM thing that carries your passion. If you see anything you like, learn it and do it.
Thank you, Judith! It was amazing laughing and sharing ideas with you. I am still waiting to welcome you to Uganda! I wish you the very best in life and at work.