Meet Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke, Professor of Physics, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (UNN)

July 20, 2019


Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke’s Bio

Francisca Nneka Okeke is a Professor of Physics, 2000 to date and her areas of research interest include; Solid Earth Geophysics, Atmospheric Physics and Climate Variability. She holds the following qualifications; B.Sc Physics (second class Honours, upper division), 1980,  M.Ed (Masters in Science Education),1985, M.Sc in Applied Earth Geophysics 1989, Ph.D Ionospheric Geophysics 1995, Postgraduate Diploma in Education, (PGDE), 1983 all from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Her postdoctoral work was carried out at the University of Tokyo, Japan.

She is the winner of the prestigious L’O’Real-UNESCO Award, 2013 for Women in Science for the Physical Sciences. This award was for Africa and the Arab States. Other winners were from North America, UK, South America and Asia. This award has placed Nigeria on the World map of honours in science. She is thus, one of the five laureates on the globe – an award for which the former Governor (Governor Peter Obi) honoured her in the government house. The former President, Good Luck Jonathan, appointed her as a member of the Governing Council of Space Science.

She is a member of several learned societies. She was a member of the National Space Council, Nigeria, and a Governing Council member of the African Network of Science and Technology Institute (ANSTI).

Her accomplishments notwithstanding, she is an avid listener, very humble, highly dedicated, committed, humane and a respectful lady. Her unassuming personality makes her a natural bridge-builder and a team player. She has proved to the world that physics is not only a male-dominated subject but also a female-dominated subject.
Why did you get into STEM?

My childhood curiosity is the key to my remarkable achievements and my passion for science. This began long before  I became a Physicist. As a little girl, I was fascinated by the sky; why the sky appears white at times, and blue at other times? Again, I wondered why the aeroplanes could fly. In my secondary school carrier, I found my vocation when I learned that Physics could answer my questions. Immediately after being awarded my school certificate, I got an appointment to teach Physics to final year students. During this period, I took up challenges and solved so many problems – questions that graduate teachers could not attempt.

It was at the wee hours of a Sunday night that I got a break-through in the difficult physics problems students challenged me with. My scream of joy woke my father who rushed to my room in anxiety and enquired on why I was screaming. I replied “Papa I have solved the disturbing physics problem”; and he walked joyfully away admiring and praising me. I solved the problem for my students. They were excited and hailed me. This marked the turning point of my carrier. That day, I made a bold resolution to become a physicist. My passion led me to develop into a physicist –  a profession feared by many Nigerians.

My late father; a mathematician, was my great mentor and hero. He taught me mathematics at a young age, and I was always ahead of my class. I then developed a love for mathematics, that later metamorphosized into my love for physics. My father planted and watered the seed of my academic excellence – I am enjoying today. I secured admission into UNN and read Physics in a class of 30 students with only two females. At that time, Physics was regarded as a male-dominated subject.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?

My painstaking research resulted in significant and outstanding contributions in my area, which have been recognized worldwide. This led to my prestigious award as a Laureate of L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for WIS for Physical Sciences, 2013. This marked my proudest moment as a Nigerian scientist.

I have contributed immensely to academic growth in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the development of Physics in Nigeria. I have published over 100 papers in internationally reputable journals, 20 minor articles and 15 books. I have mentored dozens of scientists currently serving as Heads of Departments and Deans of Faculty in various institutions.

Achievements further include the following;

  • Fellow: The World Academy of Science (FTWAS), African Academy of Sciences (FAAS), Nigeria Academy of Science (FAS), Nigerian Institute of Physics (FNIP), Japanese Society for Promotion of Science (FJSPS), Astronomical Society of Nigeria, (FASN)
  • Merit awards; first female indigenous Professor in Science and Engineering in UNN, first female Professor in the Eastern part of Nigeria.
  • First female; Head Of Department, Physics and Astronomy, 2003 to 2006, Dean, Faculty of Physical Sciences, 2008 to 2010,
  • Director of ACCAI-UNN. 2016 to 2018
  • Director, ICCSEE-UNN, 2018 to  present
  • CNN celebrated me in 2015, in African Voices, for my  numerous contributions to science
  • The Nigerian Academia, in 2016 celebrated me as one of the 10 most influential Nigerian WIS
  • I won a staff Award of UNN, as one of the Top 10 most outstanding lecturers in research and publications in the UNN, in 2016.
  • I won the VC’s research leadership award in 2017

I am a member of several learned societies such as the National Space Council of Nigeria, GC of ANSTI. I have collaborated with many universities in the USA, Japan, Brazil, Uk etc.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM? How did you overcome them?

So many complex challenges confront participation of women/girls in the development of science and technology in Nigeria. It is clearly obvious that some dedicated and committed women lack confidence in themselves; they lack determination, perseverance and patience due to non-encouragement from stakeholders. Non-encouragement of young girls/women to develop an interest in STEM poses a very big obstacle. It is disheartening to note that STEM policymakers do not involve women in drawing STEM policies.

It is a more damaging fact that the society does not encourage women in STEM because they do not accept that a woman is an individual in her own right and with peculiar qualities of mind and can take a decision on her own. There is the need to address the striking fact that lack of funds and facilities needed for innovative research work is very far out of reach from women/girls.  Scholarships for women and sponsorship for women scientists are extremely few, suggesting that more should be instituted. At this juncture, L’Oreal-UNESCO’s organization for the prestigious award for women in science should be dully acknowledged.

Collaborative research work involving women scientists is still not very functional, both at national and international levels.

There are lots of challenges I faced being in a male-dominated area. My journey was not without challenges, especially being a mixture of an academician and a dedicated family person. I was focused, determined, hardworking, patient and persevering, therefore, I did not give up.  

Out of my hard work and perseverance, I have produced 20 PhD’s and thirty-five MSc’s and I am a leader of very active research groups. Another challenge is combining family duties with academics. I surmounted all difficulties because of my perseverance; neither the family nor my academic work suffered. Although, lots of sacrifices went with success.

What advice do you have for young, budding women in STEM?

Advice to young and prospective Nigerian Scientists: Emerging scientists, especially women should not give up. There will be no room for laxity or laziness, they should be encouraged to take up challenges and never relent. They should look out for a mentor. With hard work and determination, they will be there. Women should be sponsored to participate in STEM workshops, conferences, seminars, exhibitions etc. Gender mainstreaming scientific activities must be encouraged; this could be achieved through networking. The interaction could be done through the internet because of lack of funds. This would improve and strengthen participation. Mobilization of resources is needed and committees for women members in STEM should be formed to oversee the promotion of participation. Encouraging the spirit of teamwork is another strategy that will fruit.

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