“Networking helped me get into the PhD Programme at the Laser Research Institute in University of Stellenbosch.”
In this interview by the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa), Kenyan Dr. Zephania Birech shares how networking opened the door to a funded PhD at the University of Stellenbosch. Dr. Birech is a former TCC Africa trainee and is a researcher and faculty member at the Department of Physics, School of Physical Sciences, University of Nairobi, Kenya.
Where did you do your PhD and how did you get onto the programme?
I did my PhD in South Africa at the University of Stellenbosch, Laser Research Institute (LRI) in the department of Physics. I got to join the Institute in 2009. Earlier in 2007 I got a chance to be invited for a short course on laser technology at the University of Stellenbosch and while there, I met a professor from Germany, Heinrich Schwoerer who is currently at the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter in Hamburg.
I expressed my interest, came back to Kenya and maintained communication with him. Later on, he helped me get a scholarship from the Africa Laser Centre and supplemented from his research fund at Stellenbosch and that is how I got there.
We know that as a student, you were embedded in a project during your time at Stellenbosch. Tell us more about it.
The project we did in the group was called Ultra-Fast-Science, a research that involved the use of ultra-short laser pulses (1/1015 seconds long pulses) to investigate ultra-fast phenomena in molecules. The area that I focused on then was to investigate how energy that is dumped into a system is able to cascade very quickly into other areas. My main interest was to study how light energy such as solar energy is absorbed by green leaves or green plants and transported very quickly inside the plant and used to synthesize food. So my research interest in this was to be able to understand fundamentals that may be applied in designing solar cells that can harvest solar energy without any loss.
So, you went there for a workshop, met this professor and because of networking, you were able to get a scholarship into the University of Stellenbosch. What were the terms of the scholarship?
It was a fully paid scholarship including allowance and accommodation.
What was your experience like in Stellenbosch as a PhD scholar? Did you get the support system that you needed when doing the PhD to the point that you finished on time?
I had a lovely experience and enjoyed my stay there. The group that I teamed up with was marvelous.
I had all the support. I thank the professor that was my mentor and the group that I teamed up with. We bonded quite well. I also happened to have been initially the only black person in the group. However, the group that I was in, led by Professor Schwoerer, did not make me feel any odd.
Did you face any challenges? Were there concerns that arose during your period as a student?
A challenge that I had was that I had to go while I was already married with a young family and I had to leave Kenya for South Africa for three years.
You left your family in Kenya and moved to South Africa. Did you get time to visit them?
I used to go home every six months. The scholarship covered this cost.
With your experience and fortune of studying in one of the ‘Big Five’ universities, what would you tell someone who wants to study in an African university? What does it take to study a PhD in Africa? Whether you got a scholarship or not. Are there support systems for students?
I would tell them that in Africa, we have great universities offering world class training, complete with equipment that is world class. You, therefore, need not travel outside because it might be expensive.
Studying at a PhD level, especially in the physical sciences like physics, is always expensive anywhere, not only in Africa. To do a good high-impact work, you need equipment, which are often unavailable in most universities in Africa. What you first need to do is to identify the universities having the equipment and resources you will need for the research work you have identified.
Before you decide to do a PhD, it is important to identify what area you want to be in. You need to identify earlier on an area you will be happy doing research in and also aim to do research that attempts to solve a certain problem in society.
Next is to identify a mentor or supervisor, followed by scholarship application. Note that some scholarships are offered in some of our local universities, for example, our department at the School of Physical Sciences, University of Nairobi, Kenya. Here, the laser physics and condensed matter research groups have grants through which they occasionally offer scholarships.
This means as a student, you need to be proactive to look out for these scholarships here within our local universities.
Yes. They might be few, but they are there.
What do you think is the future of early career researchers who want to do their PhDs in Africa? Is the future positive whereby there are more universities taking more PhD students considering higher education is maturing in that we are getting more supervisors than before?
It has been a decade since I graduated. Things might have changed but what I would say to younger researchers is that we do have very progressive senior researchers at the moment who are members of academic staff and are ready to offer support. The tradition is changing for the better.
The tradition is changing meaning that the concerns researchers have had about doing a PhD in Africa are slowly eroding because we have young supervisors/ mentors emerging, more support systems available and a bit of artificial intelligence in the research and in the academic publishing processes which younger people can accommodate in fast tracking their careers as PhD scholars compared to before?
In a nutshell, PhD students should not be scared because the same systems they’re trying to target in Europe or in the US, they can easily get in the comfort of their homes. The issue is now identifying good supervisors they can work with and progressive supervisors who can support them during the whole process.
If I may ask, from your experience studying a PhD in Africa, if your partner was to do a PhD, would you be willing to stay with the kids at home as she goes for three years? And would you recommend the she does the PhD in Africa or abroad? Yes. I am very much willing to also support her as she supported me while I was away. As for the PhD, preferably Africa, since it is near and one can easily travel back and forth as compared to outside Africa.