Kenyan prof feted in Germany over worm study
When a leading African scientist received a brief e-mail inviting her to Germany to present her research breakthrough to select top global researchers, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she dismissed it as a fake.
But the invitation to Prof Waceke Wanjohi from Dr Nathalie Martin-Hübner, managing director of Germany’s Falling Walls Foundation, could not have been more genuine.
Dr Martin-Hübner would explain that the Falling Walls conference is an annual global gathering of forward thinking individuals from 75 countries. And that each year, 20 of the world’s leading scientists are invited to Berlin to present their current breakthrough research which could dramatically transform life worldwide.
The conference seeks to: connect science with industry, politics, media and culture; identify trends, opportunities and solutions for global challenges; make research understandable to a broad audience; and, inspire people to break down the walls the world faces.
The initial conference was held in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to celebrate the historic day by looking into the future and getting an understanding of the world of tomorrow.
The Falling Walls Foundation, a non-profit charity, is supported by the German Ministry for Education and Research and the Berlin Senate for Education, Science and Research.
And just as plants — Prof. Wanjohi’s research subject — do not know when she is researching on them, the don had no idea she was the subject of study by the European foundation.
The “study” had found out Prof Wanjohi, who has more than 20 years experience in teaching nematology — roundworms — in universities, has since developed academic programmes and labs, as well as published internationally. She co-founded the Nematology Initiative of East and Southern Africa that is “effectively improving crop yields in smallholder farming systems in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe by effectively using environmentally friendly strategies to control the worms.”
On November 9, the Dean, School of Agriculture and Enterprise Development, at Kenyatta University, was in Berlin where she presented her findings.
Prof Wanjohi, presented a paper entitled: “Breaking the Wall of Food Insecurity: How Agricultural Science Minimises Nematode Damage in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Her brief to the Foundation weeks earlier had undoubtedly indicated how captivating her presentation would be.
“When we refer to somebody as a worm, we are not exactly celebrating his or her relevance in our world. Learning something about nematodes could change this,” Prof. Wanjohi said in the brief.
“With approximately 1,000,000 species, nematodes are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth, having successfully adapted to almost every ecosystem, where they play the most diverse roles. From an agricultural perspective, a nematode may be beneficial or detrimental: the pest nematodes attack plants and spread viruses, causing a global crop yield loss of $125 billion annually,” the researcher had said.
“I felt greatly humbled to note that the research I have been doing to minimise the impact of nematode pests on crops has been recognised internationally. Sharing a platform with the Chancellor of Germany and Prof Aaron Ciechanover, the Nobel Prize winner from Israel, was to say the least, very humbling,” Prof. Wanjohi said.
“When they (officials from the Falling Walls) sent me the programme, the fact that I was the only African among the 20 invited speakers blew me away and the importance of the conference sank farther, and from there on, I considered it not just my invitation as a research scientist, but that of my country and Africa as a whole,” Prof Wanjohi said, adding: “I, therefore, knew I had a responsibility to represent my country and my continent well. I felt it was an honour for Kenya and Africa. The next question was will I measure up?’ “