Karine Ndjoko Ioset is a circulating brain between Switzerland, Germany and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She is a Professor of analytical chemistry (University of Lubumbashi) and General Manager of the Excellence Scholarship Program named BEBUC (Bourse d’Excellence Bringmann aux Universités Congolaises), a partnership involving the University of Würzburg (Germany), 14 Congolese universities and 11 schools (https://foerderverein-uni-kinshasa.de/?lang=en).
She earned her MSc (1996) and PhD (2000) degrees in Switzerland, from the Universities of Neuchâtel and Lausanne, respectively. She accomplished a postdoctoral stay in Copenhagen (Denmark). She specialized in nuclear magnetic resonance, hyphenated and separation techniques applied to natural products, chemistry and bio-fluids. She has led the Analytical Service ($ 5Mio) of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Geneva for twelve years. At this position, she brought analytical solutions to international companies (Novartis, Nestlé, Boehringer Ingelheim and more), supervised MSc and PhD works, taught nuclear magnetic resonance and hyphenated techniques to students from all over the world. She holds 50 publications, two book chapters and two scientific prizes (Alfred Vogel Award and Swiss Chemical Society). Nominated Professor in 2015, she teaches and contributes to improving the chemistry curriculum at the University of Lubumbashi (UNILU).
For ten years of passionate work within BEBUC, Karine Ndjoko Ioset has invested her academic and research expertise to implement an innovative platform enabling young brilliant Congolese students to build their curricula and become the next generation skilful professors urgently needed in DRC. BEBUC financed by the German Foundation Else Kroener Fresenius Stiftung and by private sponsors brings a response to the lack of quality education; the access to quality and efficient social as well as economical services; the over-ageing of Congolese academic staff; the under-representation of women holding a professor chair (1% in the entire DRC!); youth unemployment and youth on the move for a change. From 4 scholars initially, BEBUC has presently 195, among them 70 girls and women. Karine Ndjoko Ioset has brought ideas to action and political awareness on the fundamental necessity to sustain quality higher education, to construct Africa-relevant research projects, to support women and girls in science.
Why did you get into STEM?
Higher education was a must go to honour my mum and my four sisters. Our dad was the only male representative in the family. Married at the age of 17 years old, our mother was casted aside by in-laws. Her ‘sin’ was to have failed to deliver a son five times. Early childhood made of violent disputes between the two families, defined my role models: grandmother, aunt and mother. They proudly fought for us and stood up for women’s rights with infinite love and care. My family moved to Switzerland when I was 12. It was a relief for everyone. At home, education was central as a force for survival and for existing. Our mother’s words were: “Education will save you. Ignorance is your enemy.”
The choice for chemistry derived from my determination not to let myself be stepped on. I saw how my little sister – passionate about literature – was subjected to the racism of a teacher who judged her essays non-objectively. I decided to embrace a branch in which I could defend myself on rules and equations without any biased questioning. The interest in chemical reactions was also fostered by the chemistry teacher who inspired and encouraged me. As a child, I was the one fixing everything at home. Our father was not very skilful with his hands.
Why do you consider your greatest achievements?
I stand where one is not expected to find me. Therefore my great achievements are part of the battles I won. I have defeated the augury of my father’s family that girls can only be a curse. Despite the bad prognosis on my fertility, I have succeeded in giving birth to a beautiful son. Despite my poor respiratory capacity due to childhood asthma, from which I had suffered so badly in the Congo, I have done athletics as a teen and won a few medals on the regional level. Despite my short fingers, I have graduated from music school in classic piano. I have been the first black woman in Switzerland to earn a PhD in analytical chemistry and to win a prize. With the award, I paid back my entire study loan. During my studies, I had a privileged position. I had gained the trust of Prof. Kurt Hostettmann who had given me already in the first year of my PhD the responsibility of the entire analytical service of his group. I succeeded in managing my research work in parallel with all the responsibilities related to the Instrumental Park. With industrial mandates, I contributed to increasing the lab funds. Presently, I’m in the BEBUC adventure; giving back what I gained in Switzerland to my country of origin and to women. With delight and admiration, I discover talented young people in remote villages of DRC and accompany them to their dreams. In the future, in quite a few Congolese higher education institutions, one would encounter a professor who would have benefited from BEBUC support. As a mentor, I support, empower and inspire women to become professors in STEM. I organize women seminars as well as inter-gender meetings to foster a better understanding among us. At UNILU, I implemented a trustful and peaceful space for my female students to speak out about sexual harassment. In the miseries of the Congo, I humbly contribute to bringing hope and smile to my people who see that a better Congo is possible.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
One major challenge was not to be recognized as a black woman in mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance. In congresses, I was taken for the secretary or worse for my lab director’s girlfriend! But, once on stage delivering my talks and responding competently to the questions from the audience, I was amused to see the astonished faces. Technicians and engineers coming for maintenance were always looking for someone else and couldn’t believe that I was the one responsible for all instruments. When discussing technical issues with them on the same basis, they usually appeared more collaborative. People will give you credit and respect when your knowledge and competences are on top. It is worthy to go as far as possible, to learn as much as possible and hold a leading position.
In the Congo, I met several male colleagues whose first question was if I knew how to cook. My response was: “I’m a woman, cooking is inherent to us as you men are convinced about that fact. Then it should not be different for a woman in STEM. Therefore, with those ‘woman’ skills, I do cook. The chemical reactions within cooking actually boosted my competences in chemistry. I advise you, men, who don’t cook, to really consider starting to cook because you will become excellent and competent chemists!” The non-relevant remark usually leaves them puzzled and grinning. Humour is a good way to overcome stereotypes related to women in STEM.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
Ambition and curiosity shall be part of your journey. I never made a career plan or dreamed to be on the cover page of Nature or Science Magazine. My ambition has always been to fix problems, to be on the side of passionate, smart and sensitive people. With curiosity and confidence, I don’t hesitate to explore and make my own critical opinion on people or situations. As a teacher, I find it pitiful that globally people don’t read books anymore. I advise STEM people to read all kinds of books. Reading favours creativity, imagination, visualization and critical thinking important and fundamental issues in STEM. They will be particularly crucial in the digital jobs of tomorrow.
Above all, you have to go for your passion and never let anyone tell you that you will not succeed. You better always try, take risks and remain curious about the results. A good surprise could be there or not. But, at the end of the day, you will for sure learn something. Do accept not to be perfect and allow yourself to make mistakes. Do accept to cry. Cry in an intimate place and come back with a fresh face. We, women, are made of brain and heart. Mistakes and crying are part of our learning journey. Do not hesitate to ask for advice from other women or men. Men are good in giving spontaneous opinions which can help. For the contours, women with a sisterhood soul will be open to you and happy to share their journey. Self-doubt is normal. The perspectives on your doubts will change if you envisage replying WHY NOT to the question WHY? You may take several days thinking about WHY NOT and you will see that the perspective will change by itself. To African women, my advice to you is to go for it. There are still so few of us in STEM that if you go for it, you will for sure be STARS and Queens.