Women in Botany – Dr. Laetitia Voua Otomo

Botany is the scientific study of plants, encompassing their structure, function, classification, and interactions with the environment. Our guest, Laetitia talks about her work in exploring the fascinating world of plant life, from microscopic organisms to towering trees, shedding light on their vital roles in ecosystems and their contributions to human well-being;

Hello Laetitia, thank you for accepting to share your STEM journey with us. You are our first guest from Gabon and from the field of Botany. We are happy to have you
Hi Winnie, thank you for the work you are doing! It is exciting! And, I am happy to be part of the wonderful women featured on your website.

Thank you for the kind words!

Would you mind introducing yourself to our audience?
My name is Laetitia Voua Otomo from Gabon. I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of the Free State (UFS), QwaQwa, South Africa. I am from a Botany background but my research interest is phytomedicine. More specifically, the isolation of bioactive compounds from medicinal plants.

To help me understand these technical terms, what does a normal day look like for you as a person working in this field – Botany?
Research paper reading, Labwork experiments, writing of publications, and lecturing are all parts of my routine as a postdoctoral fellow in Botany. Field trips are occasional. I buy most of my plants from traditional healers and herbalists. Based on their claims I decide on which disease-causing agents to assess the plant’s biological activities.

Wow! This sounds interesting. Tell us about your journey into Botany
I was born in Gabon, where I did my entire primary, secondary, and part of my tertiary education. In 2004, I moved to Stellenbosch University to carry on with my Honours in Biochemistry. I then obtained my Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences from North-West University, Potchefstroom, and my Ph.D. in Botany from UFS.

Is a career in Botany something you had imagined since childhood?
My Mom was an electronics engineer, so I aspired to become one as well. I was not aware of what a career in Botany entailed until I reached postgrad. My love for biology started in grade 10 though. Among the things that captivated me most were cell signaling pathways and how they regulated biological systems. After my matric, I decided to study Biology and Chemistry. It is only later on at the postgrad level that phytomedicine became my main field of interest.

Let’s talk about some of the challenges you have faced as an African woman in Botany
Being a woman the main challenge I had to come across was to find a balance between my career and motherhood. I had to take a few breaks from academic life when my children were born, which was quite challenging. However, my love for research has always brought me back to the academic world.

Striking the “balance” is always challenging for us women. But, how are you able to find motivation to move forward when challenges arise?
As long as one’s intentions are “Never to give up”, life will align with that mindset, and somehow guide you through the challenges, by giving you the necessary wisdom to tackle them. I allow myself to take breaks, but not quit, I refuse defeat!

I also find that being consistent with my prayer, sport, healthy eating, and vitamin routines is key to keeping up with the constant demands of my work.

Tell us about some of the most prestigious moments on your career journey in Botany
In 2015 at the same time as I obtained my Master’s degree with distinction, I was also awarded a prize for Best Academic MSc Student in Biological Programs. I also have three (3) peer-reviewed publications.

Who is Laetitia outside of the walls of Botany?
Outside of work, I am a self-employed woman.

What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is one that reminds me that the distance between me and my dreams is persistence. It is a quote by Jez Humble that reads “If it hurts do it frequently, and bring the pain forward”.

What is your word of encouragement for a young African girl who might be interested in pursuing a career in Botany?
There is still so much to learn and uncover from plants. So, they should not worry about whether they have made the right choice or not. Botany is a rich and interesting science.

I would like to share a few quotes with the women in STEM in the hope that they will be inspired. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough”. Another quote is by Bansky, saying “If you get tired learn to rest, not to quit”.

Thank you, Laetitia, for accepting to share your journey through and with us, and for teaching us about Botany. I also thank Nicole for the recommendation. May you continue succeeding in your career path.

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