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Okeke… The love, the life of UNESCO medalist

April 14, 2013


PROFESSOR (Mrs.) Francisca Nneka Okeke, winner of UNESCO’s Woman in Science
Prize, was not at the Princess Alexandria Hall, University of Nigeria,
Nsukka, when her name was mentioned by Professor M. Nalecz, Director of
UNESCO’s International Basic Science that the university should utilise her
and her prestigious award to discover young scientists and mentor many
people in Africa and the world over.

Prof. Okeke was actually at another hall, supervising the examination of
some undergraduates in her department, Physics. The ever busy, quiet and
unassuming scientist has supervised and produced many masters’ and Ph.D
candidates who are doing well today.

The UNESCO committee, which recognised the uniqueness, quality and
importance of her research, said she won “for her significant contributions
to the understanding of daily variations of the ion currents in the upper
atmosphere, which may enrich our understanding of climate change.”

Other experts, who won with Prof. Okeke were Profs. Pratibha Gai of the
University of York (UK); Reiko Kuroda, Tokyo University of Science (Japan);
Marcia Barbosa, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre
(Brazil); Deborah Jin, National Institute of Standards and Technology
(USA); and University of Colorado, Boulder (USA).

For their contributions to science, the Director General of UNESCO, Irina
Bokova, showered encomiums on these women, saying, “these five outstanding
women scientists have given the world a better understanding of how nature
works. Their pioneering research and discoveries have changed the way we
think in various areas of the physical sciences and opened new frontiers in
science and technology. Such key developments have the potential to
transform our society. Their work, their dedication, serves as an
inspiration to us all.”

With her feat and the subsequent honour she brought to her country, probing
deeply into her research, family life and other matters prolonged my stay
in Nsukka. And through a series of enquiries, what appeared to be her
contact information surfaced!

Quite away from the unusual heat in Lagos, the cold spell of harmattan and
the haze swept across Nsukka, and of course, my room.

Not long after I had settled down to my meal, I received a message that
Prof. Okeke would like to meet me. The message also demanded when it would
be possible because she was billed to travel out of Nsukka within the next
12 hours.

“Within the next 40 minutes, I will be at the house when I finish my
dinner,” I replied.

Some minutes later, I hopped on a motorcycle (*Okada*) in search of Prof.
Okeke’s residence. The bikeman, leading the way with navigational
assistance from my phone, rode very fast on the dark, lonely road. I kept
wondering how I was going to make it back to my hotel room after the

After some minutes of combing the road, we were in front of a structure,
which appeared an airy oasis of calm. Some security checks and inquiries
were made, thereafter, before the light-skinned, quiet geophysicist, armed
with her laptop, descended the staircase, gingerly.

She glared at me and asked questions, which made it look like a long lost
relation was being welcomed back home.

Since when she was named as one of the five women laureates of the 15th
L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science, the lady, whose research into the
atmosphere, illuminated the world of UNESCO, had kept a low profile, shying
away from media buzz and publicity. This evening, it took more than casual
nudging to get her speaking.

How did she feel when she got the news of her award – especially as a woman
in a man’s world?

The lady smiled, “I was so excited.”

The L’Oréal laureate, who is endowed with brain and beauty, yet humble,
added, “the first thing that came to my mind was to praise God. I knew I
had worked hard, but it’s not all hard work that has been recognised.”

Reechoing Nalecz’s words that UNN should utilise opportunity provided by
her award to discover young scientists and mentor many people in Africa,
Okeke said she would continue to encourage women to participate in the
development of science and technology in the country.

She noted that cultural challenges were impeding on women’s participation
in global innovations, stressing, “even though it is seen as a male
dominated field, people like us inspire others.”

HER husband is equally a physicist and professor. And you wonder, what has
been his role in all these?

“While I monitor what goes on, on the earth’s surface into about 1,000
kilometres into space, my husband monitors from 1,000 kilometers into
space,” she broke out in a loud grin.

Within a few minutes of discussion, it was obvious Prof. Okeke had taken me
in the family of science lovers and achievers.

She said, while talking of her husband, “incidentally, he is into space
science —Astrophysics. I am not into space. Maybe one day, we would join in
space. But my own field is not part of his. He has his own programme. They
are the ones in space. When I gave my inaugural lecture, people said *Oga *(my
husband) left the continent for me and went into space. I told everybody
that I got married to the love of my life not because he is a physicist –
but because of the love I have for physics right from my childhood. Before
I got married to him, I was teaching as an auxiliary teacher to final year
students immediately after my secondary school certificate that was where I
got the incentive of becoming a physicist.”

Prof. Okeke, the first female head of department at UNN, added, “ after I
married him, the interest I had also came when I watched him solve his
Ph.D. problem with relaxation and how he solved mathematical problems with
ease. I said, ‘one day, I too will become a physicist!’”

OUR discussions wore on, as if Michael Faraday, the man who discovered
electricity, had illuminated our life once again. Her husband, renowned
Professor Pius Nwankwo Okeke, simply called P.N. Okeke, walked in, as we
chatted. I greeted him and he sat down on a chair listening to the
interview with rapt attention.

Interestingly, the study, which she conducted in Physics that earned her
UNESCO recognition, is on *ion* in the atmosphere.

Her discovery will make people to better understand climate change in
future. “I was observing some changes that occur by the movement or
variations in the upper atmosphere, which invariably, affects the earth’s
surface,” she said. “Climate change could be caused by so many things like
when we have aerosol in the atmosphere, volcanic eruption that can also
push out Sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere and also the depletion of the
ozone layer. All these have effect on the climate all over the world.”

The lady continued, “sometimes, we attribute this change to some phenomena
that we are not sure of. But this variation has been shown to be
contributing much to those things that affect our climate.”

Did she carry out that research only in Nsukka?

She drew a long breath and said, “it was not only in Nsukka. When you talk
about climate change, it’s global. It’s not isolated to one place. I
visited so many institutions. I visited Japan, South Africa and Brazil.
Whatever reading is taken by satellite is global. When you come back to do
the same reading in Nigeria, you’ll see that it has almost the same effect
on the climate.”

Is it that from Nsukka she worked and also travelled to network with other
experts to find answer to a global problem?

“It’s not like when you do a small research, you’ll find an answer. That
was what I said in my work that research continues. We are in a dynamic
world, not static one. You can find today. Like I mentioned, the issue of
industrialisation in which most of the companies are contributing to the
problem of global warming,” the mother of four boys and two girls said.

The Idemili North Local Council of Anambra State-born geophysicist
explained further, “you don’t say because you have carried out research in
a small area and you have found out an answer that it’s the global answer.
It must be continuous because what you find today would not be an answer
tomorrow. We are going to continue to research on this until we get an
answer for everything. Like last year in Nigeria, we experienced flood,
which has never been experienced before. Many people attributed it to so
many things like much rainfall, which is not true. I have done some things
and we are writing on it now — we have not finished.”

She said, “if you check the rainfall records for the past 20 years, last
year was not as much as six years ago. So, if it had been much rainfall, it
could have happened six or more years ago. There are other things we have
to attribute it to, but most suspicious is that the icebergs are melting
due to destruction of the Ozone layer and therefore the ultraviolet rays
(UV) of the sun are passing through sending much heat.”

The Ozone layer depletion you just mentioned has been responsible for
increase in cataract cases, some skin cancers, and problems in agriculture?

“Yes,” she said. “Definitely, it has affected so many things. Health,
economy and agriculture are affected. Do you know what that means if you
hear that ozone layer is being depleted? Ozone layer protects us from the
scorching sun. The layer protects life on earth. This means that once it’s
affecting our life, invariably it’s affecting our health. It means that UV
rays will descend on us not only causing cancer but it will destroy

“Therefore, economy is affected. That is why many companies are being
advised to minimise, although they cannot stop it. We have to be very
careful about how much carbon dioxide we send to the earth’s environ,
because once it comes down, nothing will defend it even through the
magnetic field – that is where I am coming and working on — also to protect
life on earth. I am working on geomagnetism, and atmospheric physics,” she
revealed. “You know that this magnetic field I am talking about protects
life on earth just like the ozone layer protects human beings and other
things. When the solar wind that comes with energetic particles that
penetrates the earth – what the magnetic field, also does is to protect the
solar wind from directly descending* *to the earth’s surface. You find out
that very strong solar wind will penetrate through to the magnetic field
and these ones that penetrate are very harmful to the human environ and
life on earth.”

One other issue is that the Nigerian – or the African may feel that climate
change, global warming is the white man’s or Western invention and it has
nothing to do with us. Now with winning of the UNESCO award through a
research based on climate change – don’t you think many will now be able to
identify with you and say – this is our own – a study from our own woman
who has confirmed some issues on climate change?

According to her, “it’s funny, you can’t say you don’t believe. Science is
science. Like I have already said people think that what happened 100 years
ago will continue to be. It’s from my own research, it’s detected that even
the phenomenon of the earthquakes is connected to the upper atmosphere.
Even volcanic-eruption, we cannot say it’s not part of Nigeria. Nigeria is
part of the earth. We are not isolated from the world. It’s not a white
man’s idea. It’s here with us. The typical example was last year’s flood.
In my own lifetime, I had not seen this type of flood till last year. We
have to be very careful.”

AND suddenly, the discussion shifted space science, her husband’s

All these while, Prof. P.N. Okeke pursed his lips. I got more curious. I
knew the focus of my interview should not only be on madam professor, and
that it had to extend to her husband, at least, to catch a glimpse of his
own experiences into space.

I was dumbfounded and dazed when I was to find out later that Prof. Okeke
is the same great physicist who wrote a lot of physics textbooks used in
Nigeria and other West African countries.

He laughed heartily – telling me that his own area of focus where he is
very comfortable unlike his wife is space.

Being the President of African Astronomical Society (AFAS), Prof. P.N.
Okeke is saddled with the task of setting up a centre for Nsukka.  He
interjected, “from this centre, there will be an observatory to monitor the
space in Nigeria.”


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