Life, study and research at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST): RSIF PhD scholar Sylvia Wairimu Maina’s story

Pauline Achoka
15 Jun 2020 0

My research title is “Deciphering Biosynthesis of Bioactive compounds in African Cabbage (Cleome gynandra)”. I am working on this local orphan crop that is used both as a vegetable and a medicinal plant in promoting human and animal health. I will be profiling different accessions to determine the levels of glucosinolate secondary metabolites compounds present.  Furthermore, I will evaluate the biological activity and applicability of extracts from the plants. The research results will promote useful neglected crops nutritionally and pharmacologically. The research is relevant in many parts of Kenya and across the continent, which has rich and diverse underutilized crops with great potential in food security and health. I am enrolled for my PhD at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Africa Center of Excellence for Infectious Diseases of Humans & Animals in Southern & Eastern Africa (SACIDS), Tanzania. I am funded through the PASET RSIF Program. The prestigious RSIF scholarship covers the full cost of my PhD studies at Sokoine University and provides for my internship, including travel, at KIST.

Being an RSIF student has been both a challenging and rewarding experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to explore more than just my research topic objectives; and this has impacted a very significant amount of personal development and learning. I appreciated the chance to share my story and research interest with an international audience at the 5th PASET Forum in Kigali, Rwanda in 2019. The RSIF programme has also given me the opportunity to be mentored, to create connections with peers, to build worthwhile networks, to meet and hear from inspirational people with the focus of developing personal and professional goals.

My journey as an RSIF PhD scholar and female African scientist builds on my past achievements and passion for teaching. I was born and raised in a humble family in Kenya. In boarding school, I was shy, self-conscious, and became overwhelmed by the academic pressure. However, these challenges inspired independence and responsibility. My favorite subjects in high school were mathematics and sciences. In choosing to pursue a career in science, I draw inspiration from memories of my grandfather who used plant extract-based therapy to treat sheep suspected of having sustained snake bites. I obtained my Bachelors in Science (Bsc) in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Masters in Science Degree (MSc) in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics, in 2011 and 2014 respectively from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenya. While studying, I conducted tutorial classes and practical sessions for undergraduate students. Through this experience, I developed a passion for teaching and upon graduation I worked as a teaching assistant. I started my PhD at Sokoine University of Agriculture in 2018.

The opportunity provided by RSIF to engage in the ‘sandwich’ program at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) has surpassed my initial expectations by enabling me to receive personalized advice that focuses on my needs and challenges. I am attached to a very vibrant group of aggressive scholars who are generous with sharing knowledge. This has been a plus point for the team since members are freely able to socialize and discuss about the PhD experiences, get help and advice that helps one improve in research and also make friends. The option of volunteering in the team’s projects has enabled me to challenge myself, a chance which has opened up in me qualities that I didn’t really know were there.My passion is in Biochemistry, Biotechnology and health.  Using a “bottom up” approach, I strive to understand useful compounds in natural products.  The recent technological advances have allowed smart cultivation of compound rich plants, their extraction, identification and evaluation in maintaining health of human, animals and plants. In combination I also use bioinformatics by integrating computers, software tools and databases in an effort to address biological questions.

My greatest challenges in this current period of my PhD collaboration in Korea is maintaining a healthy work–life balance by finding a routine that works best for me. In most instances I have had a lopsided schedule which has affected my social life. Occasionally, I have found myself with unfinished work as I try to run my objectives in parallel, however, through the supportive team of scholars, I have had the chance to navigate through.
The greatest discovery I have made so far is that success means more if I move out of my comfort zone and challenge myself in new things that allow me to grow. I am assured that this decision to take up the RSIF PhD research opportunity will one day prove to be one of the most important and rewarding things I ever did with my life. I thank the Government of Kenya, through PASET RSIF for supporting my studies.

PASET, which is an initiative of African Governments, with support from the Government of Korea and the World Bank, aims at strengthening the science and technology capability of sub-Saharan African countries for economic development. RSIF is PASET’s flagship initiative and the first Pan-African science fund of its kind. RSIF will train applied researchers (at least 40% women), in sciences and engineering, build research capacity in sub-Saharan African universities and conduct research for Africa’s development. This initiative is timely as Africa responds to challenges such as COVID-19. RSIF competitively provides PhD scholarships for 3-4 years training for citizens of sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries at Host Universities in Africa, and ‘sandwich’ training at selected International Partner Organizations.