Bamidele Omotowa is a Nigerian U.S.-based Chemist, Nuclear Scientist, and Co-Founder of Pearlhill Technologies. In this interview with Bunmi Fatoye-Matory, he speaks on how not learning to apply science to solve problems has left Nigeria behind its peers.
PT: Where were you born? And where did you get your early education?
Omotowa: I was born in Okoro-Gbede in Ijumu LGA of Kogi State, Nigeria. I attended Demonstration Primary School in Okene, St. John’s Anglican Primary School, Dekina, AbdulAziz Atta Memorial College (formerly, Government Secondary School), Okene, and graduated high school in 1979.
PT: And your tertiary education?
Omotowa: I studied Chemistry at the University of Ilorin graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1984, a Master’s degree in 1988, and my doctorate degree in 1995. Professor Michael Adediran Mesubi was my supervisor and mentor. Everything good in my professional path that came later was because he gave me the opportunity to grow as a young researcher. He picked me as his lab assistant in my third year as a student in Ilorin.
He was a focused, visionary and capable first-generation Nigerian chemist. I learnt a lot from him.
During the study for my doctoral work, two things happened. I started working as an Assistant Lecturer in 1988, and then got promoted to Lecturer II in 1993. Between 1994 and 1995, I spent one and a half years at the University of Bath in England.
PT: What took you to the University of Bath?
Omotowa: The World Bank made available to the National Universities Commission some scholarship opportunities to improve the quality and capacity of young university teachers in Nigeria. I took advantage of this opportunity to do some of my doctoral work at Bath.
PT: What did you do at Bath?
Omotowa: I conducted a lot of my doctoral research there because we didn’t have the facilities in Nigeria.
PT: Did you work with anyone in particular?
Omotowa: Yes, I worked with Prof Kieran C. Molloy, my British supervisor, with whom I published four papers in the field of Organometallic Chemistry. Afterwards, I returned to receive my Ph.D. degree and continued to teach at the University of Ilorin. I couldn’t graduate at Bath because I couldn’t afford the required tuition of about 30,000 pounds.
Before I left England, my supervisor, Prof Molloy, was very impressed with my progress and recognised my potential in chemical research. He encouraged me to apply to the Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) Foundation for a post-doctoral Research Fellowship in a German University. He wrote a strong recommendation for me to accompany my application to the AvH Foundation. By providence, in the 1980s, Prof Molloy had worked with a much senior visiting fellow European, Prof Herbert Schumann, at an American university. By 1995, Prof Schuman was, perhaps, the third most published European scholar in Inorganic Chemistry.
Before I left England for Nigeria, Prof Molloy also wrote to introduce me to Late Prof Schumann (d. 2010) at the Technical University of Berlin.
In England, I submitted several applications to more than 80 advertised post-doctoral positions in the United States, with no success. However, although he couldn’t immediately offer me a position in his group, Prof John Gladysz (then, of the University of Utah) kept in touch with me as a prospect. By this time, the staff remuneration, research capacity, and general prospects for university teachers were pretty poor in Nigerian universities. I got an offer of a teaching position at the University of Lesotho but Prof Molloy was of the opinion that taking up the position could be a dead end for my research career. So he put in a lot of effort to guide me through the application process to the Humboldt Foundation. He felt that was more appropriate to my scholarship.
PT: What was life and scholarship like in Berlin?
Omotowa: I had to learn German. I went to German school for four months. Before I got to Germany, all I knew of Germany was “Hitler”.
It was not easy for the University of Ilorin to release me. There were many impediments put on my path because I had just got back from England. So I went on unpaid leave of absence for one year. I had the option to extend it.
PT: What made it difficult for you to work as a young Chemist in Nigeria?
Omotowa: Remuneration was low, the lab facilities were terribly inadequate, probably not more than $2,000 in worth. I couldn’t commit my life to that. Our scholars in the department were first and second- generation scientists whose knowledge and ideas were becoming outdated.
Some structures in the university did not support the scholarship of young scholars because there were no opportunities for research and growth. I wanted to do more than teach. We had not figured out how to use science to solve our problems, like Korea and other newly-developed countries.
PT: Does Nigeria actually use its scientists? You were a student under many excellent Chemists in Ilorin?
Omotowa: We have a painful truncation of our progress. Many of our post-colonial elders studied Law, Theology and the Arts because the scholarships tended to favor those who wanted to study non-science courses. There wasn’t much of a scientific community until 1966 when Nigeria sent its first students to study the sciences. That first generation raised the second generation of scientists at home in the 70’s. The first generation did well. They were at par with other developing countries, like Korea.
But in a place like Korea, they were resilient, using science to solve their problems. In the early 70’s Nigerian scientists were learning what everybody else was learning, they possessed the knowledge their international counterparts did.
Then the world moved on from knowledge to its application to solve respective national and local problems. We did not do this. When we had the oil boom, we could have done it. We had the Land Use Act in 1976, the Chieftaincy Act, and many other reforms that established our political governance and integration of nationwide restructuring but we omitted to develop an enduring Science Plan. There was no vision and policy to make Science a cornerstone of development in Nigeria.
At the 32nd plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on October 13, 1977, General Obasanjo, as Head of State, addressed and logged Nigeria’s recognition of the potential role of Science and Technology for future differentiation of countries. However, perhaps it was his other emphasis on the place of the black Southern Africa that drew on our emotion. Nigeria expensed significant capital to host more than 16,000 guests in Lagos for the 2nd Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) celebrations in 1977. Although, this was a welcome grandeur symbolic reversal of the transatlantic slave trade, we didn’t find the right balance, and lost a window for kick starting a science policy.
All the other Nigeria policies and reforms of the 1970s have fundamentally advanced our nationhood. However, beginning with the Shagari government (1979-83), our economics, political governance, and social structures collapsed rapidly. Nothing was working. The economy was going down that government did not pay salaries or maintain national infrastructure. It was obvious that the draconian efforts of Generals Buhari-Idiagbon military administration of 1985 did not move the dial fast enough in the right direction.
It is still true today, as it was then, that science can advance our economics many times as our current oil revenue of less than $75 billion a year. By 1995, the universities were starved of funds, so I made a decision about my life.
PT: What did you do in Germany?
Omotowa: My research experience in Germany between January 1996 and December 1997 was very powerful and has placed that country in a special place in my mind. The Humboldt Foundation held the annual meeting of all current fellows in the country in Bonn during July 1-4, 1996. I had the honor of meeting and discussing freely with the then Germany President (1994-2000), Professor Roman Herzog, at the Presidential Villa Hammerschmidt in Bonn. I was in the company of other hundreds of visiting Humboldtians and their families. I thought “wow”, it was the knowledge taught to me in Nigeria that had brought me this far, yet I couldn’t have met with my own President in Nigeria.
Later in the year, after my family had arrived from Nigeria to join me in Berlin, the Humboldt fellows and spouses in Berlin met with President Herzog again at the Presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin for the “Festival of Ideas”.
At the festival, Germany decided on which of its young PhDs to support in the quest for new entrepreneurs that would compete favorably with the best internationally, particularly the U.S. I was taken aback. They were selecting young scientists who would help solve some scientific problems in industry, and make billions of dollars doing so. Now, I am an African. So, when I had a brief opportunity I asked Professor Herzog how I was relevant to this goal. I remember that the President told me that as a Humboldt fellow, I was one of the best in the world, and that I could recognize talent and potential when I saw it. Again, “wow”.
This reinforced the results of my first meeting with my primary host, at his university office a few months earlier. At that meeting, Prof Schumann’s first comments to me were spoken in German, and afterwards he continued in English. I memorized what he said to me in German, and later looked up the meaning by translating with a German-English dictionary. It roughly translated as “no one can stop you from your goals, except yourself. What you become at this point forward will depend on you.”
As a further reinforcement of the prevailing culture, I saw a large banner on the wall of one of the lecture theaters at the Technical University on which was inscribed “wer nicht Wagt, der nicht Gewinnt” in bold print, meaning, “nothing ventured nothing gained.”
This is the German mindset that changed my approach. By now, I knew I had to be something and that I had to go for it. The stories of the people I met had touched me and changed my worldview.
The Berlin Wall between East and West Germany came down in 1985, a decade before I arrived in Berlin. Prof Schumann was born in Coburg, Bavaria in 1935, and was shaped by its history with pre-unification neighboring Thuringia.
Notably, after I had received a Humboldt Award in 1995, Prof Schumann called twice to my parents in Nigeria to ensure that I was planning to be in Germany. I was wondering why this German professor cared for me, a Nigerian. Well, he had an intractable University-Industry Collaboration project with Schering-Plough AG of Berlin to discover some new contrast agents for imaging diagnostics of the stomach.
On my arrival, I was made the lead investigator to be supported by a doctoral- and an undergraduate student. Biweekly, I had to present our findings and progress to industry officials in German language. We had to work very hard and know what we were doing. This level of scrutiny and deliberate progress was something I came to appreciate about their quality control principles. An independent group in the industry had to be able to reproduce our results and analyses by following our reports.
The topic they gave me was very challenging. They have been working on it for two years without solving it. At a point in December 1996, I traveled with my young family to my British PhD research supervisor at Bath. I asked him if he thought I would be able to accomplish my research task in Berlin. I wondered how he had described me in his recommendation, since Prof Schumann has such high expectations of me. Prof Molloy told me that if anyone can do it, it’ll be me. He gave some guidance on literature references in a related area of research.
Growing in confidence on return to Berlin, I got the result they wanted within eight days of getting back to work in December 1996. That achievement was patented instantly, and the accomplishment helped me to become more self-confident in my ability.
Prof Schumann received financial reward for this success that I brought about. I asked him if I would receive any bonus from it. He simply told me that it was only meant for people with German citizenship. With this development, I knew that I had to move on from Germany.
I reached out to Prof Gladysz at Utah and he suggested Prof Jean’ne M. Shreeve at the University of Idaho as my potential host in the United States. Prof Schumann gladly provided excellent recommendation since we had published the results of my work in Berlin.
The University of Idaho appointed me as a Senior Research Scientist in September 1997. My family and I relocated from Berlin, Germany, to Moscow, Idaho in the United States in January 1998. At that time, as a scholar, the U.S. had categorized my status as one that required a release from the Nigerian government in order to have leave to extend my visa beyond two years. However, in addition to a Nigerian presidential waiver in 1999, all my professors in England, Germany, and the United States supported and recommended my application for the Permanent Resident status in the USA. That was how I started my American experience.
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