How A Notorious Physics Problem Led Prof Okeke To Physics
15 February 2018
Science Hero: Patrick N. Okoye (Her father)
Prof Francisca Nneka Okeke’s childhood curiosity is at the root of her remarkable achievements and her passion for science. This began long before she became a Physicist. As a little girl, she was fascinated by the sky; why the sky appears white at some times and at other times blue? Again she wondered why the aeroplanes could fly without falling back to the earth’s surface. Later, in her secondary school carrier, she found her vocation when she learned that answers to her questions could be found in Physics.
Path to Physics
After secondary school, she had intentions of studying Medicine and Surgery, not until she was offered auxiliary teaching in Onitsha Girl’s Secondary School as a Physics teacher. Imagine someone with school certificate teaching year five students in secondary school (examination class). It was a big challenge, which she accepted. Her interest in Physics sprang up when her students presented a very complex problem from past WAEC exam paper on a Friday, which she went home with, and consulted two graduate Physics teachers. They both could not solve the problem; she then went home and tried solving it on her own. It was at the wee hours of Sunday night that she got break-through. Her scream of joy woke her sleeping father who rushed to her room with anxiety written over his face and enquired why the scream. Prof Okeke replied “Papa I have solved the disturbing Physics problem”; her happiness knew no bound and her father walked joyfully away admiring and praising her. She left for school the following morning, solved the problem to her students. The students were excited; they hailed her and confessed that they had taken it to several graduate teachers, but they could not solve it. This was the starting point and turning point of her carrier. That was the day Prof Francisca Nneka Okeke made a bold resolution to become a Physicist one day. She told her father of her new decision of becoming a Physicist, which he welcomed.
Her late father; a Mathematician, and Philanthropist was her mentor. He taught her mathematics at her young age, inspired her, such that she was always ahead of her class. This made her developed love for mathematics, which later metamorphosed into love for Physics. It was her late father who planted and watered the seed of her academic excellence which she is enjoying. She secured admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and read Physics. In a class of about 30 students, she was one of only two females but graduated among the best three of her class. It is important to note that at that time, the society believes the following women characteristics which include among others; passivity, emotionality, intuition, receptivity. As such, courses like Physics were regarded solely for men not women.
Prof Okeke’s passion led her to develop into a Physicist, a profession feared by many in Nigeria, both males and females. She has authored several books, published widely and given dozens of academic lectures in conferences worldwide. She has mentored dozens of scientists, currently doing science and serving as Heads of Departments and Deans of Faculty in various institutions. She has been recognised with awards as one of the Top 10 most outstanding lecturer in research and publications at the University of Nigeria, Nnsuka. Her scholarship, leadership and achievements have been recognised by many national and international academic and civic awards and honours. She was the first female indigenous Professor in Science and Engineering at her university and also the first female Professor of Physics in the Eastern part of Nigeria. Prof Okeke is a Laureate of L’Oreal- UNESCO 2013 for Women in Science for the Physical Sciences and a Fellow of many esteemed academies, such as the World Academy of Science (FTWAS), African Academy of Sciences (FAAS) and Nigeria Academy of Science (FAS), Japanese Society for Promotion of Science (FJSPS), Astronomical Society of Nigeria, (FASN) and Nigerian Institute of Physics (FNIP). In 2015, the CNN celebrated her in African Voices for one week, for her numerous achievements and contributions to sciences. The Nigerian Academia, in 2016 celebrated her as one of the 10 most influential Nigerian Women in Science.
Challenges and Sacrifices for Science
As a woman, in a male-dominated area, her journey was not without many challenges, especially because she is a mixture of an academician and a dedicated family person. Due to her hard work and perseverance, in 2003 she was appointed the first female Head of Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Her success led to her election as the first female Dean of the faculty of Physical Sciences in 2008 in the same University. These used to be positions occupied mostly by men. She surmounted all difficulties because she is determined and focused and neither the family nor her academic work suffered. Indeed, she trained her six children, who are all now successfully doing science.
Aspiring and emerging scientists, especially women should not give up; they must be focused and determined. There will be no room for laxity or laziness; they should be encouraged to take up challenges and never relent. They should look out for a mentor, L’Oreal – UNESCO says ‘The world needs Science, but Science needs Women’. With hard work determination, they will be there.
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