Gladys Ngetich: Being Stubborn

Gladys Ng’etich is a mechanical engineer and an athlete. None of these came easy! She stubbornly stayed focused on her goal, her dream to become an engineer. She is currently studying her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Oxford. Here is her story.

Why did you choose engineering? Engineering became familiar to me from a really young age. My dad worked for Kenya Pipeline as an engineer for over 30 years. I grew up in the village where traditional roles for girls and boys were protected. My father would do wiring and piping around the house and involve my brothers. Whenever my mum would send me to take tea or lunch to them, I would ask to be given something to do, and even stay there. My surrounding was more or less like a workshop. As I went through school, I enjoyed Mathematics and Science. After completing, I was sure I wanted to do engineering, specifically mechanical engineering.

How did you start your Ph.D. in Thermofluids & Turbomachinery immediately after pursuing your undergraduate studies? It is rare, but possible. I have always wanted to further my studies especially in the area of Thermofluids. I developed interest in the area during my undergraduate studies. In the process of applying for the Rhodes scholarship for a Masters program, I was made aware of the possibility to enroll directly in a Ph.D. I got in touch with Prof. Kioni of Dedan Kimathi University who had gone through a similar program and he gave me a lot of hope. I decided to go for it. Once I got the scholarship, I had to apply for admission to a Ph.D. program in Oxford by writing a proposal. I was worried! I had already identified the Thermofluids lab that I wanted to work in. But I still didn’t know how to write a proposal! I had no research experience apart from my undergraduate project. So I visited the website, and contacted professors in the area that I wanted to get involved in. That is how I met my supervisor. My email talked about the scholarship, my interest in Thermofluids and that I was not too sure about how to go about the proposal. He responded, giving me a breakdown of the methods and equipment that are used in the lab, and an idea of what we would be exploring. Before we worked on the proposal, he asked me for a Skype interview to assess whether I had the basics to do Ph.D. After that, we proceeded to develop the proposal. I wrote a draft and sent it to him, using the methodologies he had mentioned. He gave me feedback and we refined it. And it was a very good proposal which we sent for admission and I was accepted. I believe that people should try and take up opportunities. There is no need to be afraid. In my mind, the PhD proposal was a big deal and yet, they just needed a brief summary of what I was anticipating to do in Oxford.

Tell me about adjusting to life in Oxford. Finding a good professor is a gift. My supervisor is the reason why I am still sane. When I arrived, I was worried that my work would not be upto “Oxford” standard. The work was also very demanding. Then, I was, and still am the only black woman in the research lab and one of three girls out of about 40 Ph.D. students. My supervisor would constantly find out how I was doing, and helped me adapt to the environment. He organized software training sessions for me when I arrived which was quite helpful. He also tracks my sports activities. For example, he asks what time I am targeting in upcoming athletics meets and so on. And then when an idea that needed patenting came about, he guided me through the process. My other colleagues have also been awesome. It is helpful to get tips from someone who has used a particular equipment or done a numerical simulation before. I would ask my colleagues in the lab for tips and tricks to do things, and it took a shorter time to learn that way. They have been very good in that regard.

What is your current research about? I work in the Oxford Thermofluids Institute which primarily works on Thermofluids and heat transfer projects for aerospace applications. I am currently working on a project to study an advanced, efficient scheme for cooling jet engines. I have been doing computer simulations and now moving on to experimentation.

What are the two main things that you have learnt through your journey? First, balancing or juggling things. I am really passionate about sports. I participate in both athletics and football, and at the same time, I have to concentrate on my studies. I have learnt to make it work. Second, it has made me more open-minded. Meeting and having debates with people from diverse backgrounds in Oxford has made me realize that my truth is not the only truth. It has changed my perceptions in a lot of things. It has enabled me to be tolerant and listen to what people have to say, or why they believe what they believe.

The recent article about you on a Kenyan daily focused on your achievement after scoring low marks in primary school. Do we lay too much focus on academic achievement? Low marks usually have a story behind them. I got 293 in KCPE and was number 3 in my school. It was just because of the poor quality of the resources available in the school. I also know of a boy who scored C- last year but while doing his exams, he was also undergoing chemotherapy. People are rarely aware of the story behind the grade. I am aware that it isn’t sensible to remove the grading system. However, somewhere along the line, as Kenya, we focused too much on academic performance and squeezed everyone into a narrow path. We stopped caring about anything other than a university degree. On top of that, there is no diversification. Not everyone has to go to university, or do engineering or medicine to live a good life. If we broaden the field so that those kids who are talented in football can earn a living from playing football, then we will have succeeded. We also need to appreciate everyone at their level, from certificate and diploma, not only university degree. Above all, I believe we have to learn to praise and reward grit rather than instant success.

Tell us about your social entreprise ILUU. ILUU means ‘shine’ in my mother tongue. While in JKUAT, a group of us had an outreach program where we would visit schools in our villages, telling kids that it is possible to go to campus, having started from village schools. We would visit several schools at each person’s home village. When we graduated, we dispersed. Then four years ago, I spoke to a girl in Maasai Mara University who told me that I had visited her high school and I had inspired into joining university. And I thought “If one person can be inspired by my story, then I have done something.” I called my friends to get the team back together and establish something sustainable. And that is how ILUU was born. When we visit schools, we start with sexual and reproductive health, because people are very conservative where I come from. We talk to boys and girls separately. It is my feeling that these issues are ignored, leading to early pregnancies and marriages. Preventing these allows girls to further their education. Afterwards, we promote education. We are basically trying to mentor and inspire students who really have no one to look up to. With the work I have been doing at ILUU, I was awarded a fellowship by Skoll World Forum, an organization which gives support to social entrepreneurs, people working to help their communities.

What are you doing in terms of mentorship while in Oxford? I am involved in Women in Engineering Oxford, helping to organize activities for kids. So occasionally, especially women in engineering week, high school students come to Oxford and do simple engineering projects. At the end of the day, they are inspired. Last year, we made and tested solar powered car models with high school girls. After that session, you could see that they understood what engineering is. Most of them just don’t get what engineering is and I think when they see what they have created, it inspires them. I am also a part of organizing team for the Oxford Science Festival, where we will be talking about some engineering/science concepts to the Oxford communities. We hope that the event will raise the profile of women scientists and engineers. I also work with Beyond Boundaries Oxford who does the same thing.

Any hobbies? Athletics and football. I am an Oxford Blue Athlete. I realized I love hurdle races. I do the 400m and 100m hurdle races. I also play football for my college team. We are in division 3 in the University of Oxford league, consisting of teams from all 38 colleges. It has been sports, work and social entrepreneurship. It is good that I like them in equal measure.

Parting shot? Be stubborn. People like to give girls and women advice, unsolicited most of the time. How they should dress, what they should do with their career, family and so on. And we internalize this advice. We tend to give lots of attention to what people say and it affects what we want and how we behave. We take people’s advice, forgetting what we ourselves want. I am grateful that my mum taught me to be stubborn in going for what I want for I would not be here today.

Connect with Gladys Ng’etich on LinkedIn