Interview with Phillip Nyawere

ASESMA member Phillip Nyawere grew up in the Western part of Kenya. During his PhD research, he has worked extensively with Sandro Scandolo at the ICTP in Trieste, through STEP, the Sandwich Training Educational Program. He is currently finishing his PhD at Moi University, Kenya, and working as an assistant lecturer of physics at Kabarak University. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in physics, and over the years he has also taught math and physics in high school and worked as a lab technician. We spoke on the phone.

May 10, 2011

[What is your current position?]

My position is assistant lecturer in physics, at Kabarak University. I started as lab technician in 2006, so for the teaching position I started last year. So I’ve been here for the last five years.

[Do you enjoy the teaching?]

Yes, of course, I do enjoy the teaching, it is quite interesting, but the only problem is you don’t have time for any other thing like research work. Because I’m doing my PhD right now I’m supposed to teaches 2 courses. But normally if you are not doing a PhD you are supposed to do a minimum of four course.

[You’ve spent some time in Trieste, Italy. Is that correct?]

Yes, even now I’m supposed to go there next month. I work with Sandro Scandolo. I’m going now for my last visit, because it was a “sandwich” program (Sandwich Training Educational Programme). I have been there for the last two visits in 2009 and 2010, and now this is the last one, in 2011. So I go there for six months, then I come back home for six months.

[So you’ll have a break from teaching, at least.]

Yes, at least I have a break when I’m there. I can really concentrate on my research work.

[What was your education like when you were growing up?]

I was born in a village in part of Siaya, in the western part of Kenya. I grew up there and I went through my primary eduction from 1980 to 1987. For my high school I went in a city called Nakuru, from 1988 to 1991. Then, before I went to my first degree, I stayed home for one year, because I was sponsored by the government. So I joined university in 1993 and completed my first degree in 1997.

[Why did you have to spend a year at home?]

Because of the population of students joining the university, there is normally about a one-year gap, as you have to wait for a group of students to finish first.

Then I worked for about 5 years teaching mathematics and physics in high school, before joining my masters program.

[When did you realize that you wanted to study physics?]

I realized I wanted to do sciences when I was in primary school because I got a lot of interest in electricity, connecting some wires and seeing the bulbs light; it used to excite me so much in the lower primary school. So when i went to high school I met a teacher in physics, Mr. Kairo (who’s now in the US with a Green Card). He helped me personally and in that way I passed physics and was able to do it in the university.

[It sounds like this teacher had a very important role in your education.]

Yes, and not only me. Every year he was making sure that he trained some students to go and do physics, specifically for the degree. He would pick one student, talk to the student, and encourage the student. Because here the university education is very competitive. It is not automatic to go to the university. In my time, we were around 300,000 students who sat the exam but they were only taking 10,000 for the degree.

[What challenges did you face in your primary education?]

In the primary school, we were going to school without shoes, without cardigans. You don’t put any pullover on. Also, my mother died at a very early age when i was only seven years. So it was very difficult, because you are going to school, you feel cold, you walk on very rough ground. And also the teachers were very harsh on us, so many students dropped out of school.

In high school, we did not have facilities in the laboratory, we had nothing in the laboratory, so we started doing our practicals when we were in our last year examination class. Laboratories are not well equipped in our country and it’s really a big challenge for science. So we don’t get proper foundation, at primary and at the high school level, until we get to the university where they have facilities now.

[Has that situation changed today?]

Slightly, because currently the primary education is free; the government is sponsoring everything. And in high school, the government is sponsoring most of it. So I can say slightly, though the population is also growing, so the problems, the challenges are still there.

[You had to pay?]

Yes, we had to pay for our primary education. It was not much money , but we were paying some small amount of money.

[Do students face the same challenges today?]

Today, it’s not a big challenge to go up to secondary school in Kenya, as it is paid by the government, and there are more schools available, but it’s still a big challenge to get into a university.

[Do you think that scientific research is important for Africa’s future and prosperity?]

Well, it is important for me as an individual, because I know what research is. The big challenge is that our governments are not interested in research at all. So you find that there is no allocation given to us for our research. And also the number of courses a lecturer is teaching at a university is so high that most of our work is teaching, and it is hard to do any meaningful research. But research is very important for development, especially in the agricultural sector. You find that there is more research in agriculture than in the physical sciences.

[When it comes to scientific research, are the relevant topics different in Africa than in Europe or the USA?]

I think that here they get more focused on the immediate problems, like for example, they can put more money in the study of HIV and AIDS, and maybe things like food security. But when it comes to things that for them are not tangible, like what we are doing in the sciences, you find that it is put aside, it is not really their concern.

[Do you think more funding should be given to topics like condensed matter research?]

Well, I think also it’s an issue that condensed matter is new to most of our African leaders, even our academic leaders in the universities; they don’t understand it very well. So I think that is also the reason why they don’t see the need why there should be allocation for such part of science. But I am grateful to what we have here from the National Council of Science and Technology. At least they have come to recognize what computational science is doing, and based on that they give our group some money. They gave us around 2.4 million Kenyan shillings a few years ago, and that helped the group a lot, because now the computers and things are running. So I think that with enough explanation, with proper proposals, the government can be able to understand the role that computational physics is doing. The idea is still very new to most of them.

[At the ASESMA workshop, I heard many people complaining about the “brain-drain” of Africa, where the best African scientists are recruited by foreign universities. Can you comment on that?]

Yes, this is an issue, and I think mostly it affects specific professions, like the medical doctors and the nurses. One of the major reasons is the kind of payment they are getting here, it’s like we are not appreciating the role they are playing in our society. But I know there are also those scientists who are established at home. For me individually, given good conditions, good working environment, good research environment, I think it would be better to stay improve this society.

[Because those people are important to your education system and to your society?]

Exactly. In fact, it’s also a way of appreciating the role the government has played in your life. Because like in the university, if you came from very poor background, the government was paying everything. We were given a loan and now we are now repaying it back, but it helped us in our education.

[ So would you be tempted by a job offer overseas?]

Yes, of course. I have a friend who I was in university with who is teaching currently in Canada and he was trying to convince me to do the immigration to Canada, but I do believe I am giving better to the society here than what I would have done in Canada. So for me, I do believe that I should serve here.

[I think Kenya is lucky to have you!]

(Laughs.) Yes, I think I am satisfied, and so is my family. It is also very hectic, moving, and I do believe I am settled and I am comfortable.

[What was the most useful thing you took away from the ASESMA school?]

Hmmm... OK. In fact from ASESMA, I‘ve really moved several steps in my research. I was really lucky to meet you people, you young scientists, i really got challenged interacting with you people. And one of the greatest things that I would say, was interactions specifically with Kris Delaney. .... He has really helped me, like with elastic constants, and in fact I have written a paper on this and have just forwarded it to him for corrections. I intend to publish the paper soon. So I think that is the biggest gain that I got in ASESMA, as far as I know.

And also, with the internet working, at least i can still talk to you over the phone. Right now, if I am stranded, I know which people I can contact in which area. I write an email and I am replied. My work has become easier.

And also I can’t forget CHPC. I’m still using CHPC machines most of the time.

[What advice would you give to a young scientist in Africa today who wants to follow your career path?]

What I would tell them, those who are at home, I would encourage then that it is possible, even from here. Right now, with the global village on the internet, somebody would be able to do research from Africa. And those who are outside, maybe, in other nations, I would encourage them to come back home and help build a society for tomorrow.

[Do you have any message specifically for the ASESMA members?]

I would tell ASESMA people that we should never loose the network and that they should be able to press on. I know in Africa they are really needed to do teaching, but I would encourage them not to loose focus on the research. And above all, inform the society on what we are doing in condensed matter physics, so that maybe our government can be informed on exactly what we are doing in our computer simulations.