Francisca Nneka Okeke, Physicist & L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award Laureate
Curiosity, passion, and excellence best exemplify the life of Professor Francisca Okeke. Born in Anambra State, Nigeria, Francisca grew up under the influence of her late father, who was a mathematician and philanthropist. Since she was young, she has always been amazed and inquisitive about the sky and its environs. She questioned why the sky is sometimes blue and other times white and wondered why airplanes were able to defy gravity. This curiosity paved her way to the world of physics.
After graduating high school, she taught physics to high school senior students, diverting from her initial intentions of pursuing medicine. Although she found her new position challenging, she performed her teaching duties with much enthusiasm and diligence. In an interview with Science Communication Hub Nigeria, she recounted her ‘light bulb moment’ that prompted a turning point in her career.
Her students found it difficult to solve a complex practice question for the West African Council Examination (WAEC). After consulting with graduate physics teachers, who could not provide a solution, Okeke stayed up all night in hope of a breakthrough. In the early hours of the next morning, she finally solved the difficult physics question and was overwhelmed with joy. Her father, who was startled by her screams of excitement, could not help but admire and praise his daughter for her brilliance. It was on that day Francisca made a firm decision to become a physicist. At the age of 18, she married an acclaimed physicist, professor Okeke, and together they bore six children–all of whom are currently pursuing science.
Following her newly discovered ambition, Francisca went on to obtain a Bachelors of Science in Physics (1980), a Masters of Science in science education (1985), a Masters of Science in Applied Earth Geophysics (1989), and a Ph.D. in Ionospheric Geophysics (1995), all from the University of Nigeria. After her Ph.D., Francisca decided to focus on her research interests: solid earth geomagnetism, atmospheric Physics, and climate variability. She primarily studies the daily differences in ion currents in the upper atmosphere and how those affect the Earth’s magnetic field.
Given that Nigeria is a major hub for petroleum production and several other industrial activities in Western Africa, Francisca’s works are highly significant in understanding the country’s climate change conditions. Some of her papers focus on the effect of solar, wind, and geomagnetic activities on climatic variables in Nigeria while others develop and elucidate different aspects of education. To date, she has published over 100 papers in several prestigious global journals and has written 20 articles and 15 books.
Francisca’s remarkable feats in the field of physics earned her the reputable L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award. Upon receiving the honor, she mentioned that it motivated her to further “encourage girls and women to participate in the development of science and technology by offering these core sciences courses in schools and universities.” Francisca is also a fellow of several esteemed organizations, such as the African Academy of Science, National Space Council of Nigeria, Nigeria Institute of Physics, Japanese Society for Promotion of Science, and so on.
The proudest moment of her career was when she became the first female head of the physics and astronomy department at University of Nigeria (UNN) in 2003. There, she climbed higher through the ranks to become the Dean of Faculty of Physical Sciences in 2008. Serving in these positions, she ensured the hiring of several female staff and scientists to the department. When asked about the challenges she faced in her career progression, Francisca said, “I know the stages and the war that went on before I became the first female head of physics…It wasn’t very easy, but they saw some good qualities.” She further mentioned, “What this means is that as women, we have to be focused, determined and courageous, because one with courage is a majority, not quarrelsome. We will eventually get there with determination and commitment.”
She has successfully trained about 12 Ph.D. and 28 Masters students and counting. Just as her father cultivated her love for STEM and academic excellence while growing up, she embodies similar philosophy in her mentorship. She once said in an interview, “leading women scientists must develop a leadership style that will be highly prized.” Francisca values cordiality, compassion, and encouragement in her mentoring style, and she believes those qualities help encourage rather than alienate more women in her field. She makes herself relatable and present to upcoming women scientists so that they too will be inspired to walk her path, hence breaking stereotypes of women in the physics discipline. As she once said, “seeing is believing.”
Professor Francisca Okeke continues to empower women to believe in themselves and go on to pursue whatever they are passionate about, even if their passion lies in a male-dominated field. She advocated for resources to be mobilized to support women at all levels in the STEM pipeline; that is, from prospective women scientists in school to established scientists who serve on administrative committees of organizations.
by Aishat Motolani
Kiunguyu, K. (2019, December 09). Prof Francisca Okeke — Nigerian Physicist helping us better understand climate change. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from https://thisisafrica.me/africans-rising/prof-nneka-okeke-nigerian-physicist-climate-change/.
Prof Francisca Okeke — Nigerian Physicist helping us better understand climate change. (2019, December 9). This Is Africa. https://thisisafrica.me/africans-rising/prof-nneka-okeke-nigerian-physicist-climate-change/
Luc. Allemand (n.d.). How A Notorious Physics Problem Led Prof Okeke To Physics. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.afriscitech.com/en/blogs/sci-com-nigeria/1019-how-a-notorious-physics-problem-led-prof-okeke-to-physics
Meet Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke, Professor of Physics, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (UNN). (2019, July 20). Nsesa Foundation. https://nsesafoundation.org/stem-wow-nneka/
Woman, U. (2020, June 9). Pioneer Nigerian Women in Science: Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke. Urban Woman Magazine. https://urbanwomanmag.com/professor-francisca-nneka-okeke/.
Inspiring Youth: Francisca Nneka Okeke | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2021, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/special-themes/science-education/inspiring-youth/inspiring-youth-francisca-nneka-okeke/