Francisca Nneka Okeke is a Nigerian Physicist who is currently a Professor of Physics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the first female head of a department at the University. She was also the first female Dean in the Faculty of Physical Sciences from 2008 to 2010 at the same university.
Her academic qualifications are similarly impressive as she holds a B.Sc. in Physics (1980), Postgraduate Diploma in Education (1983), Masters in Science Education (1985), M.Sc. in Applied Earth Geophysics (1989) and a Ph.D. in Ionospheric Geophysics (1995).
In an interview with Nsesa foundation, Prof. Okeke explained the genesis of her love for Physics saying, “My childhood curiosity is the key to my remarkable achievements and my passion for science. As a little girl, I was fascinated by the sky; why the sky appears white at times, and blue at other times? Again, I wondered why the aeroplanes could fly. In my secondary school carrier, I found my vocation when I learned that Physics could answer my questions.”
She was also highly influenced by her father. She told UNESCO.org that, “My father was an old graduate of mathematics… Not only did he encourage me, he was my mentor. He planted and watered the seed of my academic excellence which we are celebrating today. He laboured and inspired my love for science in general, and mathematics in particular. That love for mathematics later metamorphosed into a special love for physics.”
It would therefore follow from her childhood curiosity that her areas of research interest became; Solid Earth Geophysics, Atmospheric Physics and Climate Variability.
Furthermore Prof. Okeke has dedicated much of her career to studying the ionosphere and the “equatorial electrojet phenomenon.” Her research on how solar activity in the ionosphere affects the Earth’s magnetic field could lead to a better understanding of climate change and help pinpoint sources of dramatic phenomena like tsunamis and earthquakes.
Women teaching women
STEM is notoriously a male dominated field but that is slowly changing despite the many barriers that women going into STEM face. Not only is it difficult to get sponsorship to pursue accreditation and conduct research but there are also cultural pitfalls that can stop budding interest.22
Prof. Okeke told the Nsesa Foundation that, “In the past, the core sciences such as physics were regarded as male domains where women were expected not to be seen but to be heard. People used to think that when you get into these core science subjects, like physics, the characteristics that are most worthily accepted for women in our society, including passivity, emotionality, intuition and receptivity would no longer be possessed by that woman.”
She has however found that the remedy for this is to “lead as a model, by example,” adding that “Leading women scientists must develop a leadership style that will be highly prized.”
“I have so many postgraduate female students and many of them have gotten PhDs through my guidance, counselling and encouragement. But if I don’t let them come near me, they will be scared… If it’s possible, get women to teach women. ‘Seeing is believing’. They will eventually see that it is practical and that this is a subject that can be dabbled into and not fearing it because ‘people say…’”
She has actively gone about creating space for women both in her area through her teaching and in her professional environment.
“When I started, there used to be only two ladies in the Physics department. But while I was the head, I was instrumental to the employment of three other female staff. While I was the Dean, my priority was employing women who are qualified in the faculty, in Mathematics, Physics, Geology, Chemistry, Statistics and Computer Science. Now we are many women in the faculty of Physical Sciences.”
Awards and accolades
In 2013 the remarkable Physicist was named one of five L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards Laureates for her significant contributions to the understanding of daily variations of the ion currents in the upper atmosphere.
Created in 1998, the International Award recognises five eminent women scientists from five regions of the world as a way to improve the position of women in science. The award recognises women’s contributions to scientific progress in Life sciences or in the fields of Physical sciences, Mathematics and Computer science.
Reflecting on the award Prof Okeke said that it further tasked her to, “encourage girls and women to participate in the development of science and technology by offering these core sciences courses in schools and universities.”
Other accolades Prof. Okeke hold include, first female indigenous Professor in Science and Engineering in UNN, first female Professor in the Eastern part of Nigeria, first female; Head of Department, Physics and Astronomy, 2003 to 2006 and Dean, Faculty of Physical Sciences, 2008 to 2010.
She has also been a fellow for the World Academy of Science (FTWAS), African Academy of Sciences (FAAS), Nigeria Academy of Science (FAS), Nigerian Institute of Physics (FNIP), Japanese Society for Promotion of Science (FJSPS) and Astronomical Society of Nigeria, (FASN)
In her career she has published over 100 papers in internationally reputable journals, 20 minor articles and 15 books.