By Marianne Nghidengwa
AS I enter Dr Gladys Kahaka’s (GK) office at the University of Namibia (UNAM), where she is a lecturer in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, I am greeted by biochemistry jargons; and immediately she notices my puzzled facial expressions but quickly calms me down: “Don’t worry, it is not difficult.”
Dr Kahaka is one of Namibia’s award-winning and leading biochemists having become the first Namibian to receive the Unesco’s Loreal International Fellowship Award last year for best young women in the field of life sciences . She is also the only female finalist for NBL’s Ambassador of Health, Science and Technology whose voting starts on May 1, this year. The other nominees are Professor Enos Kiremire, the Dean of Science at UNAM and Dr Japie Van Zyl the Associate Director of project formulation and strategy at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States of America (USA).
Confidente caught up with Dr Kahaka who showed passion for her biochemistry career, her many accolades and love for retail therapy – the one sure way for her to relax after a long day at work.
Confidente: What should spring to mind when people hear the name Dr Gladys Kahaka, who is she?
GK: I am a person like any other. I was born in Botswana and came to Namibia after the country’s independence with a group of OvaHerero people who were repatriated to a village called Gam in the Tsunkwe Constituency, Otjozondjupa region. I lived in Gam for as long as I can remember, that is my home. I started school in Botswana until Grade 8 (then Form 1) and I proceeded to Jacob Marenga High School in Windhoek where I completed my Matric. I was then admitted to the University of Namibia in 1996 studying for a Degree in Chemistry and Biology. After graduating, I worked at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in the Otjiwarongo District before working as a Technician in the biotechnology lab at UNAM. I then went to further my studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK where I completed a Masters in Science and PhD in Plant Sciences.
Confidente: In layman’s language, what is your profession all about?
GK: Biochemistry is the study of biological processes. This is when you look at cellular and molecular levels of any living organism. What I do is genetics; it is a part of biochemistry that looks at genetic levels.
As a biochemist, you really just try to understand the interaction of organisms with the environment. For instance, we try to understand how an organism is infected with diseases to be able to come up with a cure.
Biochemistry is important because we gather genetic information to be stored in databases which is then used by researchers in different areas.
Confidente: What motivated you to study Biochemistry?
GK: I had a science background from p r i m a r y school with subjects such as mathematics and integrated science, which is how I developed interest. More so, as an OvaHerero child, I grew up looking after cattle and goats in the village and I was surrounded by many plants. My science life started in the village, counting cattle and learning about plants from the elders. I have always wanted to study to help people and dreamt of being a medical doctor but as I grew older things changed. So I diverted my science into a profession that has nothing to do with feelings.
As much as I’d love to help people the reality is that I didn’t want to see anyone in pain.
Confidente: We understand that your passion is the study of molecular and genetic aspects of Namibian plants. What triggered such a passion and why plants?
GK: Plants are easy to work with. In Namibia, we have so many resources but are only used indigenously. I grew up in the Kalahari area and people used plants for almost anything. A lot of our plants have only been used for basic daily activities but no proper research has been done on them. That is what triggered the passion; having so many plants that are not fully explored and being able to look at what makes them able to cure us or why we should preserve them is fulfilling.
Confidente: You are one of the few female biochemists in the country, why do you think there are few women studying biochemistry?
GK: Biochemistry is not a difficult profession. People used to believe that women are best suited for the kitchen and raising children and out of respect for our parents as a woman, you opt to get married and stay at home. In fact that is what they encourage us to do or choose fields that have more money that are not related to science. Many elders think that if you work in a bank, you make more money but that is not always the case.
We also do not have enough role models in respective fields to motivate students or the youth at large. And of course we have the issue of funds, unfortunately science fields are very expensive and these could be contributing factors.
Confidente: Are there any efforts being made to encourage Namibian youth to study biochemistry? If so, which organisation (s) is doing that and what are the results of the initiative? If not, what needs to be done to ensure that the Government and private sector initiate such programmes?
GK: There are organisations such as Unesco’Loreal that recognised me as a woman in science. The University Centre for Studies in Namibia (TUCSIN) also gives scholarships to students studying agriculture which is part of science. The Government also offers scholarships in partnership with the African American Institute (AAI) as well as the Commonwealth scholarships.
Confidente: As a woman in a male-dominated career, how do your male counterparts relate to you?
GK: I think most men try to encourage women in their respective fields and we collaborate more working as team members.
Confidente: Albeit controversial, would you say female biochemists are better than male counterparts or vice-versa?
GK: (Laughs) It is the same. Research is research and challenges are the same, it either works or it doesn’t whether you are female or male.
Confidente: You are lecturing at UNAM, are you happy with the composition of sexes of your students in the field?
GK: I teach the final year students and the girls are dominating. Out of 15 students only three are male. We seem to be leaving behind the boy child.
Confidente: You have won several prizes and awards in your career. Briefly tell us a little bit about your accolades.
GK: Starting from primary school, I’ve won awards and it was a formality. I was awarded best 2nd year student in physical science at UNAM and during my second year as a PHD student in Nottingham University in the UK I won the Symposium poster award in 2007. I was also accorded by Unesco’Loreal as best young women in life sciences.
Confidente: What advice do you have for Namibian women who want to enter the field of biochemistry?
GK: Go for it. It is not easy and requires a lot of effort and commitment. You need to have love for whatever you do. Things don’t always work out with science but grab opportunities and reach your maximum potential.
Confidente: If you had another choice, what profession would you choose and why?
GK: I would go for veterinary science. Every time I hear of an outbreak of cattle diseases, I always say to myself “I should have studied that”.
Confidente: Apart from lecturing, what else do you do?
GK: As an academic, 60 percent of my time is spent on teaching; 30 percent on research and 10 percent is dedicated to community work. Just recently I worked closely with two Masters Students who were doing a research on Oshikundu (an Ovambo traditional brew) and Namibian vegetables as part of the Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) and due for publishing.
Confidente: How do you juggle your role as a mother/wife and your career? Is your family supportive?
GK: I failed to balance my role as a mother when I left for the UK. I left my only child with my mother when he was very young. It is difficult to balance because I am needed in the laboratory and as a mother. My family is however supportive and they help out where they can.
Confidente: Apart from being a professional, just what do you do for fun or to unwind after a long day at work?
GK: (Laughs) There are only two things I like doing, shopping and watching television. They calm me down after a stressful day. I also enjoy reading a good novel.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015