By Paul Kimanzi

As a young girl, Dr Jacqueline Uku loved visiting the Coast during the holidays to swim and enjoy the view of the ocean unaware that the experience would later be an eye-opener and would stimulate her curiosityin becoming a marine scientist.

Dr Uku, a Senior Research Scientist at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and President of Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) has a wealth of experience in marine ecology majorly focusing on seagrass and seaweeds-which are plants in the sea, and this comes after many years of study.

One would ask what motivated Dr Uku to pursue a career in a male-dominated field.

‘I got interested not because I was a woman but because I fell in love with the sea. I loved to swim, I loved and enjoyed to be in the water. As opposed to being in the swimming pool where you see nothing, in the sea, I saw fish, turtles, grass, corals and it was extremely beautiful. The minute I stepped into that water I got interested. Besides I had good mentors both women and men,’ she narrates.

Dr Uku participates in Science Journalism Training Workshop organized by MESHA in November 2019 in Mombasa

Dr Uku adds there are strong women in the field who encouraged her to work hard and not to give up.

Dr Uku says she still attends meetings where she finds she is the only woman and in other cases she finds she is the only African woman in attendance, challenging other female scientists to take up opportunities that propel them to serve in the global arena.

She says the journey to becoming the President of  WIOMSA began with the choice she made during her master’s degree in 1992 – when she took on a subject that was not explored very much at the time.She was doing a course in Biology of Conservation and traditionally students took up projects in wildlife management and terrestrial conservation.

Dr Uku adds she was fascinated by the sea after participating in practical field sessions in intertidal areas during her undergraduate training. She chose the sea, and in particular,working on the seagrasses of Diani on the south coast of Kenya.

‘I felt that marine conservation was not a big focus and there was a need to highlight issues of the sea by undertaking a project in the marine sector rather than the terrestrial sector. There was resistance at first within the Department because marine issues were considered the domain of training in Aquatic Ecology, but my proposal was eventually accepted and I ended up working at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), using the lab space to analyse my samples,’ she narrates.

Dr Uku says she came into contact with WIOMSA soon after her employment at KMFRI through a bilateral programme which was aimed at developing capacity in the study of macrophytes in particular seaweeds, which were being farmed in Tanzania in the 1990s.

‘This led to my interaction with a team from Sweden and I became a PhD student of Professor Mats Bjork. My studies opened my seagrass world to new techniques and applications in plant physiology. From a field ecologist, I found myself transforming into a plant physiologist. I graduated in 2005, and returned to KMFRI,’ adds the Senior Research Scientist.

Challenges facing young female marine scientists

‘As a woman, the marine field presents different challenges. First and foremost, if you are a mother you will be in the field for long, so you find you are leaving the children behind which is a challenge,’ she says.

She notes that to succeed in this field, just as in many careers, you have to work hard and put long hours.

‘You will have to give time to the family and you will have to find a balance and it is quite difficult when you are at the early stages of your career before you recognize how that balance can be realized,’ says WIOMSA President.

She explains that sometimes you will have to lead teams of men who have to accept your leadership and that you have something to offer as a woman.

‘You may also find your research team is made up of men and you have to be able not to be intimidated but to create a team that finds value in the path that you choose and value in your leadership,’ Dr Uku advises young women.

She acknowledges that as a woman you may not be selected sometimes for many things.

‘I think men tend to select themselves, so you may be left out. But what I have learned, if you are doing what you are passionate about and what you are good at, success will find you. You will find a successful path. The important thing is not to give up,’ she states.

Advice to young women

Dr Uku advises young women who want to become marine scientists to study hard to develop skills and have a lot of courage because, she adds, often one will have to be on a boat and also dive in rough waters to achieve one’s goals.

‘One should look for a path of her own in what she is interested in. She should not have fear the journey thinking she is a minority but she should believe that she has something valuable to share. If she has that from the onset it will help her move forward and make progress in whatever field she has selected,’ says the Senior Research Scientist, who is also the recipient of the 2019 NK Panikkar Award – in recognition of her work in capacity building in marine science issues at regional and national levels.

She urges young female scientists to engage with the people who are in the marine sector, for example, she adds, by volunteering to work with senior researchers is something that provides young people with valuable skills that will help in their career.

Dr Uku (seated 2nd right) at the 10th WIOMSA Symposium in Tanzania in 2017

Female scientists at WIOMSA

Dr Uku was elected the President of WIOMSA in 2014 which was a real feather in her cap. Now serving her second term in office, she says she has seen strong young women come on board and they are doing very good work.

She adds that what started with a very few women is now a large constituency that is made up of women and young people.

‘There is a shift in the demographics of our population structure at WIOMSA with younger scientists, both male and female, coming on board. We are also seeing a very good work being done in our region and it is now my hope and aspiration that this work now moves to make an impact globally. This work can be used to make a strong case study to push a transformation in the way we handle our critical ecosystems,’ she unequivocally states, adding that WIOMSA has a big contribution to make towards the sustainable Blue Economy for our region by contributing scientific information which can support the development of the ocean economy.

Remarks on Blue Economy

According to Dr Uku, Kenya has the advantage of engaging in the blue economy dialogue in a very strong way.

‘We hosted the Sustainable Blue Economy conference in Kenya in 2018. And that put us on the map for Africa as a pioneering nation in that dialogue,’ she states.

Alongside, Prof. Dr. Jan Mees, Director of the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) in Belgium, and Chair of the European Marine Board, DrUku is the co-chair of the Editorial Board that is guiding the preparation of the Global Ocean Science Report 2020 (GOSR2020).

The report aims to provide a baseline for the upcoming UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021 – 2030) through the assessment of investmentsin ocean science by member nations of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO).

Ocean science is critical to understanding how humans impact natural ocean processes and in supporting the development of a sustainable Blue Economy.

‘To move the Blue Economy in Kenya forward, we need to invest in science and we need our scientists to begin to contribute to this development dialogue in a strong way,’ says Dr Uku.