Growing up, we didn’t know of a career in computational chemistry. But with technology, we can now combine theoretical chemistry with efficient computer programs and still have a career;
Hi Elvira, we admire your appreciation for what we do and welcome you to this episode of Words That Count
Hi Winnie, I appreciate the opportunity to share my STEM journey. I hope someone will be inspired to join computational chemistry.
I am excited to know who Elvira is! Briefly introduce yourself to us
My name is Elvira Gouatieu Dongmo from Cameroon. I am currently a Ph.D. student in computational chemistry at the University of Leipzig and Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden Rossendorf, Germany. I am also part of the Research Training Group Hydrogen Isotopes and a member of Theoretical Chemistry at TU Dresden. My research interest is in designing atomistic motifs for hydrogen isotope separation with a view toward sustainable energy carriers and nuclear fusion.
Wow! I have no idea what all this means! How did you join the world of computational chemistry?
I am the 7th born among 8 children of four boys and four girls. We grew up as one family in a pretty town in Cameroon called Bafoussam. I had some social interactions along but I took more pleasure in the passing moments with my family. Education has always been the key to success for my parents who have fought to instill life values in us, constantly encouraging us to acquire knowledge whenever without ever complaining.
Strangely enough, I never really cared about my professional career because I had this assurance that being in a scientific field would help me to find a good job later. More importantly, my Dad had promised to enroll me in one of the prestigious private engineering schools after my high school. So, my job was to study hard and succeed. I worked hard but the worst happened when my father took early retirement due to some problems that his company was facing at that time. That was when I had just graduated from high school in the field of Mathematics and Physical sciences.
Given my dad’s situation, he could no longer afford to pay for this private engineering school. Therefore, I had to figure out what to do as soon as possible. Maybe teaching? I always liked to share my knowledge with others so being a teacher was my new career. But in which subject?
In high school, I liked Mathematics much more than Physics. Nevertheless, I chose to pursue Physics at the University of Dschang in Cameroon. This is because back then, there was no purely Mathematical field at that University. It was Mathematics and Computer Science. This is how I started my long journey in computational chemistry.
On this long journey in computational chemistry, what are some of the challenges you have faced?
This question reminds me of Rita Levi-Montalcini’s quote, “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them”. Tomorrow is never promised, life is not a gift, and it is full of challenges, but the most important thing is how to overcome and react to them.
When I was a kid I thought I would be a teacher or somehow be in an environment where I would be able to speak to people about science. I tried to honor that calling but then, I had no idea about God’s dream; it was bigger than I thought. I attended a competitive Entrance Examination of the higher teacher training college but failed every time. Still, I continued to work hard despite the discouragement of others. I kept reminding myself that each failure was taking me one step closer to the solution.
Another challenge is the language. I did all my high school and university studies in French but suddenly, I needed to learn English for my second Master’s degree and to be more open to the scientific world. In the beginning, it was very hard during the classes. I had to understand English first before connecting it to Physics or Mathematics or whatever was being taught. However, I have a lovely sister and friends who have also been very supportive. I am very grateful to them.
What keeps inspiring you to overcome any challenges you face?
I always think that there is a supernatural force that watches over us and strengthens us daily. God is the one who reminds me why I started, the vision, and more importantly, strengthens me.
Love overcomes my challenge: I love what I am doing. For me, it’s just like an accomplishment of my dream and the desire to go even further in the sense of helping my country later on. In front of the difficulties, love takes over.
I keep questioning myself: I always ask myself what that specific challenge is here to teach me. Usually, the answer to this question helps me to get rid of the bad thoughts or fear to act. The power behind asking myself this specific question is the fact that it can transform the fear of taking the risk into a big ball of energy and motivation. There is always a treasure hidden behind each obstacle that can be gained only by keeping on always, moving forward.
My family, friends, and others: Talking to them daily often gives me the energy to continue fighting. I often feel that if I give up I will be betraying the trust of my loved ones, and more dramatically, I will be discouraging other girls who would like to pursue a similar or even greater career.
Let’s talk about some of the prestigious moments along your path in computational chemistry
I completed a three years Bachelor’s degree in Physics/specialized Mechanical Engineering where I was 1st among 41 graduating students in my specialty. After that, I found myself in the world of natural science, more precisely, in computational Physics. In 2019, I completed my MSc. in Theoretical Physics. The main goal of this Master’s thesis was to enhance the local resources, to improve the environmental conditions by providing new materials (biocomposites).
Afterward, I got a Job as a contractual teacher in Physics and Chemistry at the Bilingual high school Djebem in Cameroon. I, however, wasn’t satisfied especially because I found research more exciting. I soon realized that to be a researcher in Natural Science, I needed more knowledge in programming and mathematics.
Luckily, I was granted a scholarship and in 2021 I completed my second MSc. in Mathematical Sciences at the African Institute for Mathematical Science (AIMS) in Rwanda. Here I acquired a deep understanding of Python programming language. This time, my Master’s thesis was related to climate with application to Smoke transport. The main goal was to investigate the use of mathematics tools to numerically and analytically solve the scalar advection equation to explain long-range smoke transport. The knowledge I got at AIMS was invaluable, and exactly what I needed to move forward in my new career. Afterward, I got a Ph.D. position in computational chemistry at Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden Rossendorf (HZDR).
Who is Elvira if not with computers or in the lab?
I am a seamstress, not an expert but, I enjoy sewing. I also enjoy listening to Podcasts, music, walking, and, reading.
What is your favorite quote?
“Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” ~ Proverbs 20:13.
How do you encourage a young girl with an interest in computational chemistry?
Be confident, dare, take risks and always ask others when you feel the need because nobody can achieve big dreams or anything alone. Always be happy it will help you to capture the positive energy of the universe. Instead of negative self-talk, ask yourself who you were meant to be and begin to honor that because in this life everybody has a calling. Your real job is to figure out your calling as soon as possible.
You can do everything that I have accomplished so far and much bigger :). I have done a few things but everything that I have is by the grace of God. Let me tell you the truth, today girls in STEM are still much encouraged and sought after but, how about tomorrow? Uncertainty… To avoid being in regret later on, use this moment to push yourself into the rising of your life. Therefore I encourage you, girls, to build a no-limits mindset.
Wow, Elvira! That was a wonderful closing remark. Girls in STEM are sought after now but what about tomorrow? Food for thought! Thanks for telling your story through us, Elvira, and for teaching us about computational chemistry.