How do we continually replenish the Research-Career Pipeline?

I was saddened to learn early this year that Prof. Ramesh C. Saxena, a former Principal Research Scientist at the International  Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) was no more. 

He will be best remembered for his work promoting neem from  the ICIPE-Mbita station and throughout Kenya and East Africa. An  excellent scientist, programme leader, and lasting friend of the founding Director of ICIPE, the late Prof. Thomas R. Odhiambo. 

During the 80s and early 90s, ICIPE employed two eminent researchers named Saxena. Both originated from India. Professor  Kailash Narayan Saxena (KN) was the head of the Crop Pests Research Programme (CPRP). Dr. Ramesh C. Saxena (RC) was a  scientist in the programme. The former was a mentor of the latter.

I first met Ramesh in the Philippines on my return from New  Zealand in 1989 freshly successfully completed my PhD. Ramesh had already left the ICIPE-IRRI collaborative programme and was  a full-fledged scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) located in Los Banos, Manila. Ramesh later re-joined ICIPE as Senior Principal Scientist in 1992 and was based at Mbita. It is was here that he started his pioneering work on neem. 

My invitation to go to the Philippines was made by Prof. Zeyuar R. Khan the head of the ICIPE-IRRI collaborative programme shortly after I completed my PhD. He wanted me to help him develop a  mass-rearing protocol for the yellow stem borer of rice. 

The Yellow Rice Stem Borer (Scirpophaga incertulas) is a major insect pest in rice growing areas of Asia.  This pest has proved almost impossible to rear in the laboratory. Khan thought that  with the skills I had gathered from working under the famous guru of artificial rearing, Pritam Singh, I would probably find a way to  rearing the insect.

I met an excellent team of dedicated researchers working under Khan. One was a very sharp postdoc, Dr. Ramchandran, and a  hard-working technician named Villanueva. To cut the story short, despite working hard and running many experimental rearing  procedures we failed dismally. Khan informs me that to date there is no record of successful mass-rearing of the pest on  artificial diet. This the very first failure I experienced as a young postdoc so soon after my earned PhD. It brought me rudely down  from the lofty heights of being called `doctor’ and made me feel infallible.

My three-month stay in the Philippines was very eventful and I made many professional acquittances as well as social friends.  The country was full of rich history, especially of the 1986 People Power Revolution, where over a million Filipinos took to the streets  to overthrow the corrupt and brutal regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.

The role of the Church was pivotal. The  protestors were supported by the Catholic Church under the guidance of Cardinal Jaime Sin. Eventually, senior members of  the army rebelled against Marcos.  Los Baños was lively and bubbly. Metro Manila was huge and throbbing. The shopping was great and the open bars were most  welcoming. I was able to take on my first consultancy advising the national Philippines Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) on  designing and managing an insectary.  I met Kanyeki, a friendly PhD scholar from Tanzania, who was working on the breeding of  new varieties of rice. He had challenging times since typhoons kept on harvesting his final crop before he could collect data  and demonstrate any success! Such is the frustrating stressful life of budding scientists.   

I also met many distinguished persons who passed through IRRI and gave seminars. Most memorable is the founder of Grameen  movement, Dr. Muhammad Yunus (those who may not know, Yunus is a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist, and civil society leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of  microcredit and microfinance. These loans are given to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans). One  afternoon, after a sumptuous lunch that included rice pudding, we trooped to listen to imbibe wisdom from this great man. Halfway through, an agricultural engineering professor from  Ghana dosed off and began having night(day?) mares. He howled and groaned in anguish and Yunus had to pause for the  man to be comforted as the rest of us laughed uncontrollably! 

Shortly after I returned to Kenya, I was summoned to meet Prof. Odhiambo at his Duduville office located at the R&D complex. I  announced myself to the secretary, the late Mrs. Grace Ochola, who expressed surprise to see that I was a short man. It seems my  doctoral research training performance in Auckland could have only be attained by a tall person! Odhiambo was more gracious  and was most interested in how I was able to convince the University Senate to convert my masters’ training to a PhD. He  promptly gave me a challenge. To write a strategic plan for the Insect Mass Rearing Unit. I was dispatched to the ICIPE Mbita Field  Station to undertake this task where I met agriculturist WWW Wapakala who was the Station Manager. On enquiring what I  was up to, he retorted: `I hope your strategic plans don’t turn tragic!’   

R.C. Saxena is but one of many that I know who have departed recently. The attrition rate has recently been exacerbated by the  ravages of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All disciplines are affected, be they natural sciences, humanities, professional  courses such as law, medicine to performing artists, and designers. Kenya recently lost eminent environmental lawyer Prof.  Okidi, leading nephrologist Prof. Were and so on and so forth. 

Where does this leave us?   

My University of Nairobi friend dentist lecturer, Walter Odhiambo says `..the crisis of scholars in health research is already pinching spite of the stringent academic requirements for employment and promotion…’ 

The foundation for a career pipeline begins at the elementary school level. It is here that we need to continually identify and  cultivate young talents. Many of us recall the visits by career advisers during our high school education. I was persuaded to  pursue a career in entomology after listening to an intellectually scintillating lecture by Prof. Thomas R. Odhiambo at the Louis  Leaky Memorial Hall based at the National Museums of Kenya in 1976. There is also a need to provide robust mentorship  opportunities to assist young graduates to make informed choices regarding the potential rewards of pursuing a life-long  research career choice. Noticing the constant attrition of brainpower due to retirement, the founding Director of the  Consortium of National Health Research, Prof. Gilbert Kokwaro and I developed a six-month internship programme (2008-2015)  that successfully recruited, institutionally placed, and guided young graduate talents from all disciplines. Many later pursued  postgraduate work in health-related disciplines and many are now postdoctoral research fellows working to become research  leaders in prestigious institutions such as ICIPE, Strathmore University, and so forth own right. Elsewhere, I have argued that  there is a need to define and support the implementation of new research training models that continually feeds and invigorates  the functioning of the research career pipeline. Funding organizations such as the National Research Fund (NRF) of Kenya  need to be seen thinking through and supporting convergence funding models.

 

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