Nuclear Science is not all about bombs!

Nuclear Science never crossed Pamella Kageliza‘s mind as an area she would have enjoyed. A fortunate accident led her to her current passion. She is currently the Chair of Kenya Generation of Youth in Nuclear, as well as a tutorial fellow in the Department of Physics at the Technical University of Kenya. And as she says, Nuclear science is not all about bombs!

Question: Why physics?
Pamella: I was motivated by my high school teacher. He was a very refined physics teacher. He taught basics in such a way that it was easy to both grasp and apply. I was later admitted to Kenyatta University for Bachelor of Education in Science where I chose to major in Physics.

Question: What was your experience pursuing a supposedly ‘male’ subject at the university?
Pamella: We were very three ladies in the class and all the lecturers knew us. There were some supportive lecturers and other were just downright negative. One of the incidents that I remember was in a quantum mechanics class where the professor really compicated the subject. One time, when I raised my hand to ask a question, he said, “You need to learn to differentiate between a Y and X!”, implying the difference in female and male chromosomes. I resolved to continue pursuing physics so that I can make it simpler to the latter generations. I later applied what I learnt in quantum mechanics while studying nuclear physics.

Question: How did you get into Nuclear Science?
Pamella: It came by chance. I really wanted to pursue a masters in physics but encountered sponsorship challenges. Later, I heard of the Masters in Nuclear Physics at the University of Nairobi, applied and was admitted. At the same time, there were scholarships on offer for women in nuclear science and that is how I took it up. I discovered that nuclear science is a very interesting and wide field.

Question: Most of us believe nuclear physics is about bombs and energy. What is it really about?
Pamella: How we get energy from an atom is based on quantum mechanics. Generally, quantum mechanics involves splitting the atoms to get to the nucleus which is unstable. The particles inside the nucleus must be able to tunnel(pass through certain barriers) in order to emit energy. It is a build up from atomic physics (where you learn the physics of the atom) to nuclear physics(where you focus on the nucleus and the particles which interact with it). The applications which are most talked about are nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry but there are also various types of radiation produced which are useful. An example is X-rays and gamma rays which are used in the health sector. Then, there is also the control measures when interacting with nuclear energy. For example, I am presently researching on health physics, with a focus on the effect of the nucleoids on people in a particular environment.

Question: What are your high and low points as a lecturer in Nuclear Science?
Pamella: I enjoy teaching and making an impact in the lives of my students. When my students tell me, “you made me love physics”, I find it very fulfilling. The low points are when you attend a meeting as the only woman in the physics department, and they automatically assume your task is to serve tea or to take minutes. I always refute these requests. Another thing is the attitude that certain areas of physics do not measure up and are not considered ‘hardcore physics’. It seems even after earning your doctorate, you may be deemed unfit based on your area of interest. This is why you need to know what you want in life and make it happen, regardless of what others think. Otherwise, it is hard to survive in such an environment.

Question: Have you had any role models or mentors?
Pamella: Unfortunately, I have had no mentors in physics. I recently met a radiologist who I can call on when I need advice. It would be a good thing to have mentors for ladies in physics. I heard of an organization for women in physics while at the University of Nairobi, which is yet to get organized. We are currently starting an initiative with two other physicists to mentor girls in science, particularly physics. Our first mentorship event was a visit to Tumaini School in Nakuru where we were speaking to Form 1 students. We will be setting up different regional networks to champion this initiative.

Question: Looking ahead, where are you planning to take the Nuclear Science career?
Pamella: To start with, I have registered for my doctorate. My personal vision is to start a consultancy firm on issues related to nuclear energy in Kenya since this is a pillar of Kenya’s Vision 2030. I am also interested in pursuing certification in the area of nuclear energy policy, which will be useful providing relevant advice on nuclear related issues. I am also reaching out to consultancies in other countries to help grow capacity in Kenya. I am, currently, Chair of Kenyan Young Generation in Nuclear which is organizing a summit which will bring together young people in the region who are trained on nuclear related courses in order to share experiences as well as encourage others to pursue these courses, because there is a need. We will also be launching the African Young Generation in Nuclear network at the summit of which I am the interim Secretary General.

Question: What motivates you?
Pamella: I believe I am who I am because that is what God made me to be. So I need to be true to my potential. I am confident in who I am. I don’t wait for things to happen. I want to be part of the people making things happen. I usually encourage young people to exploit their potential when still young. Don’t wait until you are done with the university to find out what you want to do in life. Discover what you want in life and go for it full blast.

Question: How do you balance your family life and your work?
Pamella: My family is very supportive. I have dedicated Sunday as family day. School holidays are time for bonding with the children. My husband has been particularly supportive through my masters, conferences & workshops and now he is pushing me through the PhD. The kids are always excited to hear that I am going to different places to do things.

Question: What do you do when not being a nuclear scientist?
Pamella: Farming is my outlet. I have a small garden and raise chicken as well. I belong to several chamas as well and, once in a while, we have meetings. I also love to read. I am, currently, reading a book on leadership.


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