The Pathway to Professional Excellence: ‘Why Every Young Scientist Must Target the Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Training Grant’

May 25, 2015

Every young research scientist has a dream of becoming a top-notch research scientist, of achieving professional excellence, and of being a renowned expert! But the how of this is a mystery to many! I remember way back, about 10 years ago, when I was writing my motivations for graduate studies, this phrase was ever present “My long-term career goal is to become a top-notch research scientist…” Back then it sounded more like a big dream, almost unachievable. Today as we speak, while the dream may not be fully achieved, it is evident that I am on the pathway to achieving this dream! I am obliged that the steps towards making this dream a reality have been fast tracked by the Wellcome Trust Post-doctoral Training Fellowship   (http://bit.ly/1dZt0zP)  that I held for three years since 2012 (http://bit.ly/1jT96ul). In this article, I narrate the story of my journey towards professional excellence, and the critical contribution of the Wellcome Trust Fellowship to the achievements on the way.

“Publish or perish” is a commonly used phrase in the academic circles, though it originated from non-academic circles. For academic excellence, one must continuously publish, as publications are one of the few ways of demonstrating academic aptitude. The Wellcome Trust Fellowship safeguarded my survival! Some colleagues at APHRC have referred to me as a “publishing machine”. I attribute much of this to the generosity of the Wellcome Trust Fellowship. Having 100% of my time paid for through the fellowship, I did not have to spend time hunting for grants or contributing to projects for mere survival, which could take away precious writing time from a research scientist. During the three years of the fellowship, I saw tremendous achievement in building my publication record! I (in collaboration with others) was able to publish 14 scientific papers in high impact peer-reviewed journals, to put 7 more under review in peer-reviewed journals, and to have in draft a few more manuscripts that are almost ready for submission.

Your research must count! Even with numerous and excellent publications, there cannot be professional excellence without engaging relevant audience with the evidence, including intermediate users like the media, end-users like policy and decision makers, and other scholars. The Wellcome Trust Fellowship was a great facilitator in this regard for me through availability of time and money! In Kenya, the evidence we have generated is sought both by the government and implementing organizations. We are also often invited by the media to present evidence on nutrition from our work (http://bit.ly/1GzEx7v). I have participated in numerous local and international conferences to disseminate evidence, such as the 11th International Conference on Urban Health 2014 in the Global City, Manchester, UK (http://bit.ly/1IX1nbc), the XXVII International Population Conference 2013, in the beautiful Bussan (http://bit.ly/1FMAm7K), and the 20th International Congress of Nutrition 2013 in the artistic Granada, Spain (http://icn2013.com/) among others. For communication with particularly non-academics, I was able to contribute to three technical reports and to publish other dissemination materials including over 10 blogs published either in APHRC website (https://aphrc.org/publications/) or in the Global Nutrition Report Website (http://bit.ly/1lw5gTn). APHRC’s Policy Engagement and Communication (PEC) team once recognized me as “the blogger of the year”, because blogging has almost become my hobby. But this “academic luxury” would never be without a luxury of time, thanks to the Wellcome Trust fellowship. We have been able to effectively engage policy and decision makers and now work very closely with the Unit of Nutrition and Dietetics in the Ministry of Health in Kenya. Our research work is increasingly being recognized as critical in informing the design and implementation of the proposed national Baby Friendly Community Initiative program as narrated by Betty Samburu, the Program Manager of Maternal, Infant and Child Nutrition Program Manager in the Ministry of Health, Kenya (http://bit.ly/1LBffFx ).

Not a jack of all trades and a master of none: The fellowship provided a great opportunity for me to focus on a specific field of interest, and to avoid the almost unavoidable circumstance (common with postdocs) of advancing other researchers’ research interests and not theirs, because they don’t have a funding of their own. The fellowship set pace for my journey of becoming an independent researcher, and a nutrition expert. I have often been referred to as a “Nutrition Expert”, sometimes a daunting reference. In Kenya, through communication of the findings of the work we have been doing on maternal, infant and young child nutrition (http://bit.ly/1LBfr7M), funded through the Wellcome Trust fellowship, I am increasingly being recognized as a nutrition expert nationally, and invited to contribute in technical working groups in the Ministry of Health such as the National Maternal, Infant and Young Child Nutrition Steering Committee. I have also been invited to global technical expert groups such as the Global Nutrition Report Independent Expert Group, (http://bit.ly/1AqEuu3). I have also been invited to high level global panels, sometimes a daunting experience, such as the Nutrition for Growth _Panel Discussion and Q&A in London 2014 http://bit.ly/1Rjhjpw. Given the expertise I am building, I am increasingly being invited as an editor and reviewer for journals and for grant proposals. My expertise in the field of nutrition is ever made possible because I have been able to also attract more grants in the nutrition field, made possible by the academic track record that I have developed, and great collaborations that have come my way.

Success has a thousand fathers, as Prof. Stephen McGarvey of Brown University reminded me recently. I attribute the great success to mentorship from many great people! The fellowship provided an excellent opportunity for mentorship by numerous people for me! I was so lucky to be mentored by highly committed specialists (Prof. Nyovani Madise, University of Southampton, Dr. Paula Griffiths, Loughborough University, Prof. Shane Norris, University of the Witwatersrand, Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, APHRC, and Dr. Alex Ezeh, APHRC), who ensured that each day I walked the path towards professional excellence! I also got to collaborate with great people along the way, some of whom have turned out to be my great mentors! Among them, the newly found God-sent mentors Prof. Richard Lilford of Warwick and Prof. Stephen McGarvey of Brown University, with a wealth of experience and readiness to share! Am I not lucky? I was also lucky to work closely with one of the renowned pediatricians in Kenya, Prof. Rachel Musoke, who has provided great support to the work. In the spirit of giving back, and being a responsible research scientist, I have taken every opportunity to mentor others too! The project hosted four junior researchers who helped see the success of the project, and who benefitted from mentorship. The fellowship project and other linked projects became a hub for mentorship of students, and a data source for dissertations for graduate students from local and international universities. So far, I have been able to mentor or supervise at least 10 graduate students (some of whom I am still mentoring/supervising), some hosted within the project(s) as interns, others deriving their dissertation data from the project(s), while others have simply sought supervision for their graduate studies.

Not at the finish line yet! The journey is not over yet, I am still striving towards professional excellence. While I have made tremendous achievements towards being an independent researcher, I need more mentorship than ever before! Again, apart from research and substantive expertise I need to build on some other soft skills. My supervisor once told me “you are excellent in written communication, but not assertive enough when you speak.” Becoming a great (oral) communicator is on my “to do list” in the next phase of my journey towards professional excellence.

aphrc.orgWhat’s next? Given my experience with the Wellcome Trust Fellowship, the natural and most logical thing to do is to go for the next level, the intermediate fellowship (http://bit.ly/1AqECte). I am definitely in plan to apply for this fellowship! I anticipate continued mentorship from my old and newly met mentors. While I am taking every opportunity that has come my way to excel in public speaking, I must explore more.


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