Dr Ngumbi is an author, researcher, educator, mentor, speaker and a champion for change around the issues of hunger, gender, education, youth activism, agriculture, sustainability, and public service. She works as a distinguished Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She speaks with SheThePeople.TV on finding sustainable ways to combat hunger, why “science” is her middle name and how the future of the world depends on skillfull mentoring.

How would you describe yourself?

I would describe myself as a woman scientist, a mentor, entrepreneur, author, scholar, activist, and a food security expert.

Global Girl She The People Elsamarie

You are a professor, entrepreneur, writer, academic and food security specialist. Why did you choose this path for your career?

I grew up in a small village in Kenya. It is while growing up that I witnessed firsthand the impact of insect pests and plant diseases. I still remember how as a family, we would work so hard, go to the farm every day and put our best efforts in the farm. Then all of a sudden, insect pests and plant diseases would attack our crops and all our hard work would be lost. Then we would go hungry in the following months. We were not alone. My neighbors and community members also faced similar challenges. Therefore, from an early age, I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to develop solutions for my family, our neighbors, the community and the country at large.

I grew up in a small village in Kenya. It is while growing up that I witnessed firsthand the impact of insect pests and plant diseases.

I completed high school and was the best student for that particular year. I was admitted to a Bachelor of Science program at a Kenyan public University – Kenyatta University. It was here, that my love for science was ignited. I still fondly remember my first lab – a biochemistry lab. I very much enjoyed it and did not want to leave. It was something magical – my first real science experience was an out of this world experience. I enjoyed the process of science. Having a question, generating hypothesis, designing an experiment to test your hypothesis, doing the experiments, getting results, analyzing them to see if your hypothesis is true. The rest is history. Today, science still fascinates me. I still love and enjoy the process, just as I did many years ago. In addition, I look forward to my career in science.

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“Science” is your middle name. Tell us more.

As I’ve said previously, I love science so much that I am proud to have it as a middle name. The overall process of science fascinates me. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me in anticipation every day. Ever since I discovered science, my life has never been the same again. Therefore naming myself science was just normal.

Help us understand why your work is critical for the sustainability of the planet.

We all want to eat and we do want to eat for the next fifty years. But our food systems and the sustainability of food is under the threat of insect pests, plant diseases and many other stressors that come with climate change.

The world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. At the same time, land, and water for sustainable agriculture and livestock production are becoming limited resources. Furthermore, climate change and degraded soils and landscapes make feeding the growing population a complex and challenging target. To meet the challenge, the world needs to find sustainable approaches to improve crop and rangeland productivity under a changing climate. This has been the rationale for my research and work that is focused on finding sustainable ways to feed humanity amidst a changing climate. My research explores the use of beneficial microbes. Unseen to the naked eye, these microbes form associations with agricultural plants such as maize, tomatoes and peppers. Plants that associate with these microbes grow better.

In addition, they are better defended against insect pests and plant diseases. Further, these beneficial microbes can help plants to tolerate drought stress and result in yield increases. Importantly, technology based on beneficial soil bacteria offers environmentally sustainable approaches to improving crop and rangeland productivity under a changing climate while restoring degraded soils. As hunger and food insecurity concerns increase, beneficial soil bacteria and microbial inoculants developed from beneficial soil microbes offer novel solutions needed to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems and the resilience of our agricultural systems.

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You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.

I get strength in looking at my mentors and role models who despite the challenges have shattered glass ceilings. These are highly accomplished women scientists, entrepreneurs such as Elsa D’ Silva, to Nobel Prize winners like the late Prof. Wangari Maathai, remind me that it is possible. So anytime, I am afraid or doubt myself, I just reflect on these women role models and their journeys.

We all want to eat and we do want to eat for the next fifty years. But our food systems and the sustainability of food is under the threat of insect pests, plant diseases and many other stressors that come with climate change.

What excites you when you wake up every morning?

The thrill in knowing that I could be discovering something with the potential to help solve our global challenges. Science continues to contribute novel solutions to the challenges we face as humanity. Research and experimentation provides me that chance to discover something new. Moreover, because I do not know what I will be discovering that day, I am always on my toes. It is exciting to be a scientist. Really a treat to be in the lab and to be the first person to see the results before everyone else.

In addition, you never know the perks that come with your discoveries. For example, today, I have three US Patents from research.

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Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community

When I graduated with a PhD, I became the first woman to earn it in my community. Determined not to be the only PhD holder in the community, my parents and I co-founded a school. Today, we have over 100 students. Education is the gateway to ending poverty. It empowers. It liberates. I am happy to know that I am paving the way for many more women and students from my community and from communities around the world.

I also work with farmers, sharing and transferring all the knowledge I have gained. Seeing farmers progress and increase their knowledge of farming and agriculture is rewarding. I will continue to work with them. I continue to imagine that the much-anticipated green revolution will eventually happen, and that my community will be the place it all happens.

I also serve as a mentor and enjoy working with young students. The future of our world depends on the skillful mentoring. Through mentoring, I share with students, the knowledge I have gained, my experiences as well as my networks.

What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?

I have BIG DREAMS. One of the challenges has been to get funds to finance them. To overcome this, I have made it a principle to take it gradually –step by step-and to never give up. I have also learned to hold on to my dreams, no matter the time it takes to actualize them. I know they all will eventually happen.

The future of our world depends on the skillful mentoring. Through mentoring, I share with students, the knowledge I have gained, my experiences as well as my networks.

How do you manage self-care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?

I do exercise everyday – when I can. This, I consider, my me-time. I also have a loving husband and I make it a point to spend some time with him. It is hard to achieve that work-life balance, especially when you are in a career you love. Yes, I find it hard to stay at home when I know that I could be in the lab doing an experiment.

Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?

I do consider myself global. Because my actions are global and I work with people from around the world.

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What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?

Never give-up. Hold on. Persist. If you can imagine it, you can do it. You can dream it, you can be it.

What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?

Compassion. Empathy. Passion.

What’s next for Esther Ngumbi?

I just started my journey into becoming an Associate Professor and eventually a full Professor. I want to continue to be a role model for many girls. To many who think science is for boys. That science is not fun, to dispel this narrative and to show girls that yes, they can succeed in science. But above all, I want to continue to impact my community and bring positive change. I shall not rest.

 

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