Mabel Imbuga – Scientist whose passion is in increasing the number of women pursuing sciences

Professor Mabel Imbuga is a renowned scientist by profession and an advocate for women in the Sciences. She is the immediate former Vice Chancellor of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), and the third Kenyan woman to head a university.

Professor Mabel Imbuga’s affinity for nature and the sciences started at an early age. Passing her A Levels with a Division one meant that she could pursue university education. Unlike most of her classmates at Alliance Girls High School who choose to study cooking and needlework, Imbuga opted for mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics. “Exceling in these subjects mapped my career path,” she says. It is for this reason that she encourages the youth to embrace what they are passionate about.

She accredits her success in academia to her parents. “My mother and father wanted to give their children a good education,” says Imbuga who is one of Kenya’s pioneer female scientists. She began her schooling at Bunyore Primary – a girls’ only school. After passing her CPE, she went to Alliance Girls High School where she completed her ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels.

She then joined the University of Nairobi where she did her bachelors, masters and PhD all in Biochemistry. “I am one of University of Nairobi’s few alumni who has pursued all my three degrees under the same roof,” she says.

With such a strong inclination to the sciences, it was only natural that Imbuga pursue a career in academia. She began her journey at her alma mater – University of Nairobi, rising through the ranks from a graduate assistant, to a tutorial fellow then later as a lecturer.

After serving as a lecturer, she took a break from academia and ventured into research. “I went on sabbatical leave and later a leave of absence from the University of Nairobi and joined International Centre for Insect Physiology (ICIPE).” She was at ICIPE for five years, during which she undertook her postdoctoral studies and then become a research scientist. She then returned to the University of Nairobi as a senior lecturer.

In 1997, Imbuga got the opportunity to become an associate professor at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). “When I came to JKUAT they had just introduced biochemistry studies, so I came to start the department.” She was the chair of the biochemistry department and within two years she was elected dean Faculty of Science. When her first term as dean ended, she went in unopposed for a second term.

After serving for two terms as dean, Imbuga was appointed the director of the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases. The Institute, later renamed to the College of Health Sciences, trains students at the postgraduate level in the area of health sciences. “It was during this time that JKUAT advertised for the position of Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of Academic Affairs (DVC AA),” she says. Imbuga was successfully appointed DVC AA in 2005 a position she held for three years. Imbuga’s journey to the top did not end there. In 2008 the position of vice chancellor of JKUAT became vacant. Never one to shy from opportunity, she applied for the top post successfully. She admits it wasn’t easy getting there. “Have initiative, vision and be prepared,” are the three principles she applied during her pursuit for success in the world of science and academia. “I knew I wanted to rise up to the highest level and I worked towards it.”

She prepared herself to be the ideal candidate for the position of vice chancellor by doing a Master’s in Business Administration at the Eastern and Southern African Management Institute (ESAMI) while she was the DVC AA. “My MBA gave me invaluable skills in management which have been useful in my position as vice chancellor,” she says. Imbuga became the third Kenyan woman to hold the position of vice chancellor of a public university, an accomplishment she is proud of. Since joining JKUAT, Imbuga has been instrumental in growing the university. She introduced parallel programs beginning with the Faculty of Science during her tenure as dean, a venture that has reduced reliance on government funding. As at mid 2013, parallel programs formed 70 per cent of JKUAT’s revenue, she says. The institution has also initiated other sources of generating income including, “involving staff in consultancies.”

Under her leadership, JKUAT has concentrated on becoming a university of global standards through research and entrepreneurship. “For us to achieve that vision we need to have enough technology and technological know-how. We are building capacity in the areas of engineering, science and technology, research and innovation.”

The university has also introduced programs aligned to Kenya’s development agenda. These include degrees in mining and mineral processing engineering, marine engineering and petroleum engineering, as well as programs that encourage technology in agriculture.

JKUAT has also developed a botanical garden at its Juja campus, where rare plants are grown. Laboratories attached to the garden aid in bioscience research.

In conjunction with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives, JKUAT has also developed the Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park, which nurtures research and innovation through incubation and training, to support start-up SME factories.

In 2016, JKUAT and a Japanese company Nissin Foods Holdings Co. Ltd under a public private partnership broke ground to build a factory that will produce Nissin Noodles domesticated to the Kenyan market. The noodles will be exported within the African region beginning with neighboring countries. “This will be a good business venture for both JKUAT and the country at large because of the use of Kenyan produce as the raw products and the factory will be run by Kenyans,” Imbuga says.

As a female trying to succeed in a male dominated field, Imbuga says that, “you have to fight your way up and you also have to fight to get what is owed to you.” For example while serving DVC AA, she faced challenges in getting some of the facilities that should have come with that title including salary increase. Never one to be deterred, her advice is “challenges will always be there but you have to stand your ground, remain focused and maintain your goals.”

It is therefore not surprising that above all her accomplishments, Imbuga’s most important mission to date has been as a gender advocate for women in the sciences.  It is her experiences to the top in a male dominated field that led her and a group of other accomplished women in the sciences to form African Women in Science and Engineering (AWSE). The organisation’s core functions are to encourage, empower and mentor young ladies, so that they can undertake science and engineering courses. AWSE arranges exchange programs, workshops and mentorships through which women pursuing sciences can get training and exposure.

Gender advocacy has also been a priority in her role as VC. “We are working hard to ensure that females form at least 30 per cent of our staff and student numbers.” By mid 2013, female student admissions had gone up by 17 per cent, but Imbuga felt the university has room to improve particularly in some programs such as engineering, architecture and building sciences. “In an area like basic sciences especially physics, there is still a very low number of female students and there is also only one female member of staff who teaches these units.”

Imbuga, who served as VC until August 2018 , describes her leadership style as that of a servant leader. “I like bringing people up, increasing their knowledge and bettering them. I believe in leaving a person better than you found them.” She is driven by the urge to see herself as well as those around her reach their full potential. “Until you reach a point of self actualisation, you can never really be satisfied with yourself,” she says.

On maintaining work life balance Imbuga says, “you really need your family’s support to achieve your goals at work.” As her career progressed, she was blessed to have the support of her husband – the late Professor Francis Imbuga, who was very close to their children. “He would babysit our children after school while I was at the lab in Chiromo and would wait for me to come home before he left to see his friends. It was that support that helped me prosper and lightened my load both at home and at work.”

Dedicating quality time to family is also important. She has a lot on her plate but maintains that family is always her priority. “I always strived to be a good wife and mother and I believe I have been able to achieve this. A good balance of work and family requires focus and drive,” she says. Having a good team to work with at your workplace and at home also helps, she adds. Imbuga is proud of what she has been able to achieve. “I’m happy with how far JKUAT has come over the last several years. It was an honour when it was recently published as one of the top 100 universities in Africa.” Her next aim is to see JKUAT featured in the top 1000 universities in the world.” She is also honoured that universities from around the world look for collaborations with JKUAT.

 Despite her affinity for the sciences, Imbuga enjoys singing. Her parent’s nurtured this talent during her childhood by paying for music lessons. To date, she still sings in church.

Imbuga’s parting words for ladies growing their careers is: “Never give up the hope of achieving your dreams. It is all your hands and mind.” Most importantly, she thanks God for all she has been able to achieve. “Always put God first giving Him honor and glory. All I have is because of Him.”

Words of Wisdom

  • “Cultivate what is inborn, while learning new skills along the way.”
  • “Never give up hope of achieving your dreams.”
  • “Enjoy each step to success and give yourself credit for every achievement. It will give you the will and drive to tackle the next step.”
  • “Maintain integrity in all you do.”
  • “Get as well as give support to family and friends, because you shouldn’t be in a position where you always receive support but don’t reciprocate.”
  •  “Women need to support each other to succeed. Avoid being the one who make the other females fall.”
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