With One Workshop, A Career Was Launched

by Zipporah Wanjiku Muthui

My name is Zipporah Wanjiku Muthui, and I am from Kenya. I’d like to share my story of how my career prospects changed completely after attending the 2013 Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics, in Trieste, Italy, as it may be an inspiration to many.

After I completed my Master’s in Physics studies in 2010, I really didn’t know what was next for me. Thanks to God, I got an opportunity to work as an Assistant Lecturer at Chuka University in Kenya. I had a great desire to pursue a PhD, but my biggest problem was that I did not have a research topic and didn’t know how to find one. The other problem was how I was going to finance my studies.

Zipporah3Then one day, Mr. Richard Ngumbu – Chief Technologist in the Physics Department at Egerton University, Kenya, sent me the call for applications for the Career Development Workshop at ICTP. I filled out the application without imagining that I would make it. But I got a surprise email with an invitation and details about my upcoming trip to Italy— that was a bright spot in my life! I couldn’t believe it! I was so excited and soon I arrived in Trieste. This turn of events was beyond my wildest dreams. Here I met many women, young and very educated, some who were my age and miles ahead, but most importantly, all in physics! I had never interacted with women in physics, even in my own country!

The next biggest event in my career came at that workshop, when I met Professor Arti Kashyap from the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, India. This was during the poster session. I didn’t even know that she was a professor in physics; I was admiring all these ladies’ posters when I commented to her that for me, the biggest problem was that I did not have a research problem. At that instant, she told me that if that was my biggest problem, then she would help me. I shared with her that I’d been avoiding seeking scholarships that would take me away from home for a long time, because my son was still in primary school. She answered with the advice that I could consider computational physics, and that she would even assist me by granting me access to her code remotely. There and then, she asked me to go and download Quantum ESPRESSO and do the Silicon problem, after which I should contact her. This was no mean feat for me then, but I went back home with great hope that at last, I could begin working towards my PhD. I went home with homework!

Tonya Blower’s presentation was another big event for me. Through it, I got to hear about OWSD for the first time. After her presentation, I asked a few more questions and felt that I would apply in the next call—I now had hope for financial support towards my studies! I left the workshop filled with hope, fully energized to go and begin working towards my PhD, my age notwithstanding.

When I went home, I completed my homework and contacted Prof. Arti. She then sent me a research paper and told me that from that I could get a problem. I read it thoroughly and then read it again, coming up with a proposal which I sent to her. She guided me and by April 2014, I had a PhD proposal in my hand. Around the same time, the call for OWSD PhD scholarships came out. Under the supervision and guidance from Prof. Julius Mwabora and Dr. Robinson Musembi of Physics Department at the University of Nairobi (UoN), I fine-tuned my proposal which led to my admission into UoN for my PhD studies. They also supported my application for the OWSD scholarship. After that, another miracle happened–I was awarded the scholarship and in 2016 and 2017, I went for my first and second visits to India, hosted by Prof. Arti at IIT, Mandi. It was a big dream come true! Here, I got way more than I thought possible: not only did I learn computational techniques, and dive into fully fledged research on Heusler alloys for spintronics applications, I had the most hospitable host one could ever wish for! Prof. Arti is a friend, sister, mother, and professor, all wrapped in one, who invited me to her home and on trips several times.

I have since managed to publish two papers and my thesis is in the final stages before examination. I also went back inspired to join the OWSD-Kenya chapter, and found that it did not exist. Together with likeminded ladies, we have kicked it off and plans to launch it are underway.

I thank God for allowing my destiny changers, the workshop organizers, to grant me the opportunity to attend the career development workshop for women in physics in 2013. Through the workshop I met more destiny changers: my supervisor, Prof. Arti, the program coordinator of OWSD, Tonya Blowers, and many inspiring women in physics. Have a wonderful workshop in 2017–may more careers and lives be touched in the upcoming conference!

 

Zipporah Wanjiku Muthui is currently completing her PhD at the University of Nairobi, and is an Assistant Lecturer for Chuka University, currently on study leave. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

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