Dr Chioma Blaise Chikere is TCC Africa’s 2021 trainee and an Award winning researcher in Environmental Microbiology and Bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons-polluted environments. Her research is based in the techy Niger Delta region in Nigeria
TCC Africa : Tell us more about who you are and your research area.
I am a Senior Lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), Nigeria currently undergoing assessment for promotion to become a full professor. I have been a senior lecturer for the past six years and hopefully in the next few months after scaling the remaining stages will be confirmed a full professor. I started lecturing in November, 2005. I was employed by the University of Port Harcout in the Department of Microbiology as an Assistant Lecturer and have grown through the ranks for the past 15 years.
I got my PhD fellowship from the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) in 2005. Initially I had a fulltime fellowship but later switched to spilt-site option at the University of Pretoria (UP) South Africa, Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology. To be confirmed by my employer, I had to be on probation for two years, before I could undertake my PhD fellowship at UP. So I had to register as a PhD student in my home university in the Department of Microbiology. Later on, I moved over to University of Pretoria under Professor Thomas Eugene Cloete in his research lab as my supervisor to do the molecular aspects of my work. I was there for six months and came back in 2008 and defended my PhD .
My area of research is Environmental Microbiology and Bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons-polluted environments. It focuses on using biological means to return polluted environments to at least to the near original state, if not exactly the original state. I’ve been doing this over time. That was actually the research focus of my PhD thesis. I looked at bioremediation of crude oil polluted soils in different contexts. I did part of the work in University of Port Harcourt using Nigerian soil that had its own properties and soil samples from an agricultural farm in the University of Pretoria. I was able to compare the different soil properties and evaluated how different soil textures and soil types would select different microbial species involved in the degradation of petroleum hydrocarbons. I was able also to use molecular fingerprinting methods to look at both cultural and non-culturable bacteria which was very innovative.
A few years later I defended my PhD thesis, and it was selected from my university by the National Universities’ Commission (NUC); which is the regulatory body by the Federal Government of Nigeria that regulates the activities of the university system in Nigeria, both private and public. So in that year 2010, my thesis was selected by the School of Graduate Studies in my university and forwarded to Abuja, Nigeria. Gladly, my thesis was selected as the best doctoral thesis in biological sciences and I was awarded the 2010 prize out of nearly 129 public universities in Nigeria.
TCC Africa: What do you think contributed to you winning?
It was the collaboration, with the University of Pretoria in South Africa and UNIPORT and the fellowship from OWSD, that provided the springboard which launched me into the international scientific scene. UNIPORT and UP had a memorandum of understanding and through this I got additional research incentives. I remember receiving a call from our then Director of Exchange and Linkage Programmes Unit (ELPU) Prof. Onyewuchi Akaranta at the University of Port Harcourt and my PhD supervisor Prof. Gideon S. C. Okpokwasili notified me that my thesis had been selected as the best in biological sciences and was needed in Abuja over the next few days. At the time I was nursing my three months old baby and 3rd child hence had to go with my mother to receive the award. In a conversation with Prof. Akaranta on getting back, we felt that without the kind of international exposure I had enjoyed, maybe my thesis would not have won the award. This aspect really gave the research work a good international acceptance since we had published in SAGE’s Waste Management & Research and equally presented good papers at notable international conference. It also gave us that enhancement that enabled us to overcome certain challenges in our context where we had not had an enabling research environment. So, this was a really good experience that helped in boosting my research performance, visibility and equally giving me the opportunity to empower other women scientists and early career researchers in my research group.
TCC Africa: Fantastic! So what you’re trying to tell us is that you benefited from internationalization and collaboration. This is very important for researchers if they also want to increase their visibility. The kind of research you’re doing in the Niger Delta is very sensitive, knowing very well the history of the community and the oil companies’ engagement. So what have you been doing as a researcher to try and engage your community as a research scientist such that you’re able to manage this situation at the same time continue doing research in this area?
As you mentioned, it was not easy for me to delve into the Niger Delta problem. For decades now, this area has been on the news due to oil pollution that has degraded the environment. We also have agitations from different groups, minority and interest groups, activists fighting the oil companies to compensate host communities and as such the environment is techy due to alleged unmet needs. I knew it was going to be difficult as an academic to gain trust in these communities. However, I was able to break through using my research. The Master’s student mentee assigned to me in 2014 was a youth leader from one of the communities in the Niger Delta region and he shared with me the kind of unscrupulous activities taking place in his environment and how he thought there would be no microbial life since there was so much contamination and the vegetation had been stripped from the environment. I thought this was a good place to start and he collected samples for the preliminary research with an overall aim to find out whether we still have indigenous microbial flora that are viable and could utilize the hydrocarbons. This is because the hydrocarbons had overshot the intervention limit set by the Department of Petroleum Resources, (DPR) the regulator of the oil and gas industry in Nigeria. From the preliminary studies and chemical analyses, we found out that we had thousands of different fractions of toxic petroleum hydrocarbons that would constitute more harm to the environment. So we were able to get some microbial species, not only could we establish that they were using the hydrocarbons as sources of carbon and energy, we equally found out that they have certain genetic elements that helps them produce certain enzymes that could attack these hydrocarbons and degrade them into innocuous substances like carbon dioxide, water and equally getting energy for growth. This preliminary finding was published in the Scientific African Journal https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sciaf.2018.e00003 hosted by the ‘Next Einstein’ African forum.
I applied for the call from Elsevier Foundation’s Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge (GSCC) 2nd edition in 2017, where my proposal made it into the top 5 from several hundred proposals that they had screened and I was awarded the second prize by the Elsevier Foundation. During this process we realized that we could enhance certain biological properties of the microbes to help us in enhancing and speeding up the biological and chemical reactions that could result in the decontamination of the polluted environments. From here, I formed a team with the student and two others who were undertaking their PhD under me and was able to get them scholarships and fellowships with the help of the Foundation and my mentor Prof. Akaranta.
The hurdle that remained was to get a buy in of the community. During the time, I was also pregnant and could not ferry myself across the coastal area and so I asked the student from the community to have their community representatives visit me at the university for engagement as it afforded me the protection I would need. We came to an agreement that I would start my project in their region which we did starting in late 2017 to early 2019.
TCC Africa: In essence what you did in terms of engagement, you worked with community representatives and used the youth by adding them to your project, which gave validity to your project and you involved them in making knowledge-based decisions. That is something that very few researchers seem to realize that engaging is not necessarily writing policy briefs, but it is physical engagement and inclusion in activities so that you can get maximum results.
Exactly, we involved everybody . The youth, the landlords, the illiterate, the elite, we had all of them to achieve our goal at the end.
TCC Africa: Why did you join the TCC Africa science communication course? What did you learn from it beyond the experience you’ve had in public engagement with your audience and what value would it add to your already existing career?
Initially, I thought science engagement was from evidence-based facts, scientific research, laboratory experiments, the need to convince peers in conferences. I assumed if we were able to do this, the results would substantiate your claims. Prior to the science engagement course, I never really had the skills or was trained on how to engage a non-science based audience, though, I did it informally, when I was working on the Elsevier Foundation-funded project.
Through this course I got to understand more practical aspects when communicating with a non-scientific audience. You can still have your evidence and you need to make it understandable to laymen . If they don’t understand what it means for a microorganism to degrade hydrocarbons, they at least understand that compost can be used to kind of help plant growth. So from their informal knowledge, you can as well use your scientific base, break it down and bring them on board to accept your science and equally be engaged in sustainable development. So I got all that from the training, so I can engage better now with different audiences.
TCC Africa :What do you see the future holds for your career?
What I see in my future is further empower the youth like my PhD students to have more knowledge on how we can restore the environments using nature-based solutions. These technologies are not technical and can be implemented in their communities, thus, have polluted sites revamped and decontaminated. So I may not physically need to be there but my students can still be the voice to help in this campaign in championing the UN Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that we have sustainable cities and communities, and ensuring that the biodiversity is restored in our ecosystems as the Niger Delta has one of the richest biodiversity in the world. My career is really evolving now as I am no longer the lone voice in the wilderness, I now have people at strategic regions from the Niger Delta, that share a common vision.
More collaborators have joined my research project , and we are increasing stakeholder engagement . Because the research I am working on is an African problem.
TCC Africa : Thank you so much for your time. This is amazing work you are doing!