IWD 2021 – Future Women Leaders. Crops for Health
Sylvia Wairimu Maina (Kenya), talks about her PhD research on the nutritional and health benefits of the African cabbage.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in rural Kenya. I attended boarding school, thus learning to be responsible and independent at an early age.
What inspired you into science and into your specific area of research?
My passion is in biotechnology and health, largely inspired by memories of my grandfather who used to extract plant-based therapies to treat sheep suspected of having sustained snake bites.
Where did you obtain your earlier degrees?
I hold a BSc in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (2011), and an MSc in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics (2014), both from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenya.
Who is your key influence?
I am inspired by Dr Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist renowned for her research and development initiatives on tissue culture banana as a way of enhancing food security in Africa.
What is your research focus?
My research aims to synthesize compounds in the African cabbage (known scientifically as Cleome gynandra), that have value for human and animal health).
Although widely used as a vegetable and a medicinal plant, C. gynandra is one of African orphan crops; neglected or overlooked plants that are often more nutritious and better suited to local agricultural systems than exotic varieties.
My studies are supported by the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund. I am registered in Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania, and I am currently on a sandwich programme at Korea Institute of Science And Technology, Seoul, South Korea.
What progress have you made so far?
I have conducted and published a systematic review that updates knowledge on glucosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds found in cruciferous vegetables like the African cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale.
These compounds play an important role in human and animal health (disease therapy and prevention), plant health (defense chemicals, biofumigants and biocides), and food industries (preservatives).
The study also presents factors that affect the natural occurrence and biological availability of the compounds, supporting increased harnessing of their therapeutic values.
What is the contribution of your research to the sustainable development goals (SDGs)?
Broadly speaking, my research is aligned to the SDG 2: End hunger. Central to this goal is the understanding that a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish the more than 690 million people who are currently hungry.
Because of their high nutritious value, African orphan crops are a vital way of addressing malnutrition, especially hidden hunger, in Africa. My research will contribute much needed scientific knowledge, as well as awareness towards unlocking the full potential of these crops.
How does your academic journey contribute to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic?
Alongside two other female RSIF PhD scholars, I contributed to an article discussing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on our personal lives and research journeys. We believe that the candid presentation of the challenges we have faced, lessons learnt and our sources of resilience will help to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic on other scholars and researchers.
Interview published in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA): International Women’s Day 2021: Future Women Leaders – Young African women scientists reflect on their research journey.