In this interview with some journalists, including Funmi Ogundare, the new President of the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria, Funmilola Ojelade explained why government should adequately fund research institutes, saying that it will help engineers solve key problems confronting the country. She also highlighted the efforts of her administration to empower graduating students and young engineers to make them employable, among other issues. Excerpts:
What is your academic background like and when did you join APWEN?
I graduated from Obafemi Awolowo University in 1989 with a degree in Chemical Engineering, I hold a master's degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Lagos. Presently I am studying for a master's degree in Management and Finance at the Harvard University. I joined APWEN since 2003, I was in Abuja at that time and I rose to be the chairman of the Abuja chapter of the association between 2011 to 2013.
What motivated you to study engineering?
I was motivated to study engineering from secondary school. The subject I liked and passed most were the ones that could enable me to study engineering which is physics, chemistry and mathematics. I didn't find them difficult, particularly mathematics. Though, at the earlier stage, my matha was very bad - when I was in form one and two. But by the time I got to form three and had another teacher, I picked up. It was a natural thing for me to go into engineering. My elder brother also had a great influence on me. He studied Civil Engineering and when we were filling the JAMB form with our dad, he recommended I study Chemical Engineering.
As a female engineer, have you ever faced any discrimination from your male counterparts?
I have never had reasons to think that I was being treated in a particular way because I am a woman. If there was any assignment to do, I just did it. I have never felt like I was being discriminated against because I am a woman. If there was any, I didn't take note of it
How do you intend to complement the efforts of your predecessor in terms of STEM for girls initiative and transforming the association?
The flagship programme of APWEN under the leadership of the immediate past President, Dr. Felicia Agubata is the 'Invent It, Build It', which is a programme targeted at inspiring primary school girls to study engineering. Eighty one girls from the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria have been awarded scholarships under this programme, courtesy of the NNPC. We will complement that by organising boot camps for these girls every year to ensure they do not lose the vision of studying engineering at the university. APWEN local chapters in places where the scholarship awardees are located will be required to organise the boot camps in their respective localities. The boot camps involve them taking part in practical exercises that teach engineering concepts and showing them the value of engineering in the technological development of the society. Also, we will begin the 'Town and Gown' mentoring programme to cater for graduating students and young engineers. The programme is to help them develop skill sets required in the engineering industry and make them employable.
What factors hinder women from going to study engineering in the university?
As a woman, the primary thing is the bias of the society that engineering is a career for men. We even have parents that will say "it's a male thing, therefore, you should not do it." A lot of people also think that it requires physical effort like those of motor mechanics and bricklayers. We know that the engineer is the designer of the structure, methods and processes that will be used primarily. We have craftsmen and technicians who carry out the physical aspect.
Mathematics is one of the core subjects required to study engineering, why do you think people see it as a problem?
From my personal experience, the teaching method goes a long way. My maths was bad in forms one and two. The reason was that the teacher was an expatriate and I had difficulty understanding her accent. But when in form three, we had a Nigerian maths teacher, I found it very easy because of the way she approached it and because I could understand what she said. She was a good teacher and used strategies that helped reinforce whatever she taught us.
What challenges did you encounter in your field as a chemical engineer?
My work has always been paid employment with government parastatals. They have structures and processes already in place. But when problems arise in the process, you have to sit down with a team and decide on how to solve it. That happens a lot and it is part of what you do to get your experience. Basically, there has been none so big that we were not able to overcome.
How do you intend to empower your members technologically?
We have the Business and Social Entrepreneurship Committee in APWEN. They come up with the training and capacity building programme for members. Being engineers, we are in the technology field already, but there are quite a number of things that we may not be so good at. For instance, things like finance, or entrepreneurship. So, these are the kinds of additional capacity building that the committee brings to the table.
How do you think government can assist engineers to solve problems of research?
There are quite a few engineering research institutes like NASENI and NBRRI which are government-owned. So the government has provided a platform. These should be well funded and the funds judiciously utilised
Where do you see APWEN in the next five years?
I see APWEN go beyond Nigeria. We are going to have people from around the world wanting to become members of APWEN because of the value we are adding to lives.