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FUOYE’S FIRST INAUGURAL LECTURE: It’s a plus for women that we can competitively lead in serious matters, says Akintayo

Prof Cecilia O. Akintayo is a trailblazer who will deliver the first inaugural lecture of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti on Friday. The professor of Industrial Chemistry will speak on ‘The Place Of Plant Based Oil Derived Products As Sustainable Replacement For Petrochemical Products Of Industries.’ In this interview, she spoke about her career, challenges facing women in academics and, especially, the sciences and higher education in Nigeria.


Question: Congratulations on your upcoming inaugural. How do you feel being the person to deliver the first inaugural at FUOYE?

Answer:  Honestly speaking I must confess that when I approached the Management of FUOYE about delivering my inaugural lecture, I was just doing the needful expected of a Professor in a university to make a public presentation of the results of his/her findings that earned him/ her the Professorial chair. That the lecture is going to be the first in FUOYE didn’t cross my mind at all.  All these 1st, 100th or 1000 are just numbers, what is more important is the contribution one is making to improve the lots of the society. However given the many congratulatory messages I have received and the way the news of my presenting the first inaugural lecture in FUOYE has been circulated, I appreciate the honour and recognition providence has accorded me for delivering the first inaugural lecture of the university. I think it’s a plus for the women folk that we can competitively lead in serious matters and excel.

Question: Your focus is on replacing petrochemicals with biochemicals derived from plant oil. Should countries that rely on petrochemicals such as Nigeria be worried?

Answer:  In an age of fluctuating oil prices, global warming and other environmental problems (e.g. waste) the change from fossil feedstock to renewable resources can considerably contribute to a sustainable development in the future. Especially plant derived fats and oils bear a large potential for the substitution of currently used petrochemicals, since monomers, fine chemicals and polymers can be derived from these resources in a straightforward fashion. The synthesis of monomers as well as polymers from plant fats and oils has already found some industrial application and recent developments in this field offer promising new opportunities, The use of renewable raw materials as feedstocks for chemical production is continually suggested as offering several advantages over conventional petrochemical feedstocks, including a lowered demand for diminishing crude oil supplies, greater sustainability of the raw material source, the ability to recycle CO2, the security of domestic feedstock supplies, and a source of new, structurally interesting building blocks with new properties and applications.

But nations that rely on fossil resources for their economy like Nigeria should not worry much because unlike the picture a few decades ago, it now appears that this process will take many decades and the speed of the transition from petrochemicals to oleochemicals will depend crucially on factors such as the health of the global economy, progress in R&D into new plant oils, and wider political developments. Countries like Nigeria are very rich in flora and if they focus on the right priorities, they would remain the champions even when eventually there is the desired move from petrochemicals to oleochemicals for the global benefit of all

Question: How ready do you think the world is for a post-crude oil economy? Is this likely ever to come true?

Answer:  We’ll never know if we don’t take a few small steps forward. Considering the incremental steps that have been taken towards a post-crude oil economy globally, one can say that a lot has been done in this direction. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Petroleum is fossil fuel from millions of years ago. We have to end our dependence on them. Cheap petroleum is ending and their decline will commence in the near future. These fuels pervade our lives. We have to reshape every aspect of our lives – how we work, live, eat, and how we relate to one another. This will take decades but we need a Plan B. This can only happen if everyone participates in these changes in an open and informed way. It can only happen if the changes are fair and equitable. Building trust is important. This will not happen with “top down” command approaches where leaders say “we know best”. This is not a reflection on their competence, rather it reflects on the complexity of the task.

Biomass based materials are normally assumed to be more expensive to use than existing petrochemicals. However, a closer examination indicates that cost is not nearly as large an issue as is commonly assumed. Many of the chemical building blocks available from biomass can be obtained at costs that are very competitive with existing building blocks in the chemical industry. In a very broad sense, either a petrochemical based industry or a biomass based industry faces issues of supply, separation, and conversion. In contrast, processes for raw material or building block conversion are significantly better understood for petrochemical based starting materials. Many of these processes are highly efficient, and proceed in very high yield. Many of the products can be made from several different routes. Importantly, most of these processes are thoroughly understood at the molecular level. The amazing process control that is the hallmark of many industrial processes is achieved through a deep understanding of discrete chemical mechanism of transformation. Most of these features are not well developed in the biobased products industry. Accordingly, we have been investigating new methodologies to improve the science available for the conversion of renewable building blocks into chemicals.. We have also been investigating the production of new polymeric materials based on these synthetic roadmaps. Overall, we must avoid cynical attitudes that a post crude oil economy can never happen. Expectations tend to be self-fulfilling and expecting such approaches to happen helps them happen. Already there are positive signs.

Question: FUOYE is among the youngest Federal Universities in Nigeria, yet it is matching older ones in ranking. How is the Management able to make this happen? What unique opportunities do FUOYE offer students, especially the female ones?

Answer: Yes FUOYE ranks very well among Nigerian universities. I think the strategy is that the Management of the university gives due attention to parameters that are considered in ranking universities. It’s a simple wisdom of focusing on things that matter. FUOYE has continued to attract the best and brightest students and academics for the future. Within available resources the university is building infrastructure that will attract them, while, at the same time, tackling the kinds of financial problems the whole sector face. The University management is setting right priorities and addressing academic matters to the extent that all courses floated by the University have been accredited by thr National University Commission. Female students are given due considerations regarding their peculiarities, for example they are preferentially considered for hostel accommodation. As much as possible the system frowns at any form of abuse towards the females and this gives them the confidence to compete successfully with their male counterparts.

Question: There appears to be a small number of female scientists and researchers in Nigerian universities. Why is this so and what could be done to rectify this?

Answer:  A lot has to do with women trying to figure out which setting will allow them to integrate their professional and family lives. For example, women have a limited window of time to start a family, given the knowledge that they have a biological clock after which only a very small percentage of women are able to conceive naturally. Another deep rooted problem is that to be a successful academic, you have to work harder after each promotion you earn. This put a lot of pressure on women who naturally have competing interests at the same time. These issues are different from the issue of gender balance that is generally being addressed institutionally by our universities and systems generally. On what could be done, I think mentoring is key and number one. Experienced women scientists need to mentor the upcoming ones to provide them with encouragement, advice and practical help to enable them marry successfully both their professional and family life. Secondly, Nigerian universities should put in place policies that would encourage female academics to grow given their peculiarities. For example, giving those that have children a kind of : pre-school childcare financial support, giving women the opportunity to apply for travel support to conferences for dependants, giving them some time off teaching for those that are primary parents responsible for children etc. These kinds of policies would solve a lot of challenges faced by women in balancing their family life and make the world a more peaceful space for all of us.

Question: What motivated you to join academics and especially a chemistry researcher/teacher?

Answer: I was motivated by my Chemistry lecturer while I was undergoing the Ordinary National Diploma in Science and Technology at the Federal Polytechnic, Ado-Ekiti. He always took his time to relate the chemistry he was teaching us to life and that made me to appreciate the versatility of chemistry as a science. He was always thrilled by my outstanding performances in Mathematics and Chemistry courses and therefore took interest in encouraging me and was always commending my efforts, brilliance and my excellent moral behavior. He naturally became my mentor and did all in his capacity to see to my being admitted by direct entry into Part II to study Industrial Chemistry at the Federal University of Technology, Akure having completed my OND with a high flying Upper Credit diploma.  I wish and pray that lecturers should build destinies of their students rather than destroying it. This my chemistry lecturer served as a mentor that guided my career path as he also encouraged and supported me to attain the M.Sc and PhD degree in Chemistry. This is why I think mentoring is key to women attaining heights in academics. However females should prove the genuineness of the motives of male mentors because it is motives that give character to the actions of men.

Question: What advise would you have for young women seeking to start a career in academics

Answer: Some advice really. (i) Establish a committed support network. Bring everyone important in your life (husband, children, parents, parent-in-law etc) to understand you need their support to excel in academics. It takes a village to launch an academic career.

(ii) Find an academic mentor. Follow the lead of academics that have been there before especially successful women academics. Occasionally, when you find a male academic mentor with proven genuine motives, follow their lead as they even build destines better than the females.

(iii) Adapt to your role as academic, Manage competing responsibilities effectively i.e. develop the skill of multitasking. Also be realistic of the challenges you face that may kind of slow down your pace a bit. For example that you are not completing your doctoral studies in three years like your male counterparts does not mean you are not as smart as them, It may just be because you have to combine other roles with your studies. Don’t ever lose your confidence because of your peculiarities.