Don of many firsts and survivor of terror attack – Daily Nation

Posted: August 25, 2020 at 5:53 pm

By David Muchunguh

What do you consider as your most important research or publication? Why?

I think our paper published in Nature is my most significant publication. Not only did we manage to publish in a highly respected international peer reviewed journal but also our work was featured on the cover.

We reported on inter-group relations among prehistoric communities of hunter-gatherers who lived in Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana. Together with Dr Marta Mirazn Lahr, Prof Robert Foley, and others, we were able to show that human conflict over resources is historical. Until this was published, violence of this nature was mainly associated with more settled or socially developed people, who had more resources to protect, for example food grain or land. But this study was able to show that warfare and violence did occur among communities irrespective of their wealth or possessions; or whether they were hunters or gatherers.

I am also especially fond of the paper that came out of my PhD research titled The origins of African Sheep: Archaeological and Genetic Perspectives in African Archaeological Review (2013) 30:3950) that documented the routes of how sheep were introduced into Africa and how sheep pastoralism spread throughout the continent.

You have been re-appointed as a member of the Commission for University Education, what fundamental changes do we need to improve the competitiveness of our university education?

Covid-19 pandemic has caused all universities to re-think how they operate. We have to adopt new and innovative ways of teaching and interacting with students. We have to ensure that learning and research continues.

This means greater investment in technology. Innovations and technology can be a great driver for economic development. I think there is not enough money going into research. If universities could get even half of what is envisioned in the Vision 2030 (which is 2 per cent of the GDP) it would make a huge impact on the economy. The universities need to upgrade and modernise their infrastructure for scholarship and research.

Expound on your role at the WHO

At the end of 2018, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, made a startling announcement, that he had genetically altered two babies genes in order to prevent them from getting HIV. This announcement was shocking because there are easier and safer ways to prevent HIV infections.

The gene editing technology that Jiankui used called CRISPR is not safe for use on humans and the implications of his experiments on innocent babies are huge. The Director General of the World Health Organization set up the WHO Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing to which I was appointed.

We are developing a governance framework for the management of this science. We are working very hard to complete this and we anticipate it will be finalised by December.

How did the Westgate experience affect the way you work, if at all it did?

My experience at Westgate changed me. Not only did I come face-to-face with death (after being shot twice in the chest at point-blank range) and survive, I saw humanity at its worst and at its best. I have chosen to carry the good with me.

My sister (who was with me) and I saw people putting their lives at risk to rescue and save us. I learnt what it means to be committed and to serve. And I have tried to emulate this from that experience.

Youve scored a number of firsts, would you like to tell us about them?

I was the founder and the first chairperson of the Department of Botany at JKUAT at 26 years of age. This automatically made me a member of the JKUAT Senate and I made history by being the youngest member of the JKUAT Senate.

The following year, I was appointed JKUAT Senate representative to the University Council. This was my first board appointment and at 27 years, it inducted me into leadership at a young age.

I was promoted to the post of associate professor in 2007 and to a full professor in 2013, making me the first female professor of Genetics in the country.

In research, I was the first in the world to characterise the sheep of Africa using molecular biology tools and the first in JKUAT to publish in the Nature journal. Like I mentioned earlier, we were the first to report violence among groups of hunter gatherers

What do you think is the future of science studies in Kenya?

The future is very bright. Since 2018, I have been honoured to be the chief Judge for the Young Scientist Kenya (YSK) National Science and Technology Exhibition. Every year students from all 47 counties assemble and showcase technologies, innovations and ideas that they have developed to use and more importantly to solve challenges that face their communities.

These are the minds that we need to nurture, because they know what their challenges are and they do not wait for someone else to provide solutions, they do that on their own.

YSK is an initiative of both the Ministry of Education and the Government of Ireland. When we have more students doing STEM in secondary school, then we will have more doing STEM at the tertiary level in universities and technical and vocational colleges. Research has shown that countries that have strong science, technology and innovation cultures develop faster economically and make the nation strong and competitive internationally.

What are you working on right now?

Right now my research involves identifying local innovations that can have a positive impact on increasing livestock production. Farmers are real innovators. They identify their problems and come up with solutions.

So you find that there are many inventions, innovations and local technologies at the farm level that should be patented, scaled up and disseminated to other regions to help other farmers. I am also keen on identifying digital solutions that can be integrated into livestock production.

For example, the use of digital platforms to connect farmers directly to sellers and thus increasing their profits and cutting out costly middlemen.

What do you do during your free time?

I read autobiographies and I knit beanies ... woollen hats. I am a member of a womens book club called Hodari Mothers Club and we have a project where we (among other things) make beanies for charity. Last year, we made beanies and donated them for use in preemie (premature baby) wards in the public hospitals. Right now our focus is to make beanies and donate them to adolescent cancer survivors.

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Don of many firsts and survivor of terror attack - Daily Nation

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