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Adeola Olubamiji is first black to hold a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Adeola Olubamiji is first black to hold a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Nobody to Somebody: Pep Naija Interviews Olubamiji, the Pepper Seller Turned PhD Holder

Not too long ago, the story of Adeola Olubamiji broke the internet; the Nigerian social media space was agog with her success story. And this was for two reasons, probably. One, she became the first black person to receive a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Two, it’s the story of nobody to somebody: she’s the pepper seller or hawker turned PhD holder. 

Away from these, Adeola is such an inspiring figure. She has reminded everyone that if you dare the impossible, you can achieve anything in life. In this EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Pep Naija, she reveals the secrets of her success as well as plans for the future. Before you get soaked in her story, be informed that she’s a lover of Naija jollof. KEEP READING…

Within the past few weeks your success story has dominated the Nigerian social media space, how does that make you feel? And what lessons have you learnt from this?

I feel blessed and everything that I have been through from my childhood until now all worked together for good.

Lessons learned (these may sound like quotes or pieces of advice but they are my lessons learned):

  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers, hard-work and prayers are not old-school and they in fact can make you a superstar;
  • Your beginning and where you are right now are not determinants of your future. If only we can look beyond, we would rise, we would fight and we would win;
  • The efforts, the prayers, the quality time, the disappointments and everything else put into your life will one day pay off. Keep pushing and never give up.
  • No one knows your journey like you do and no one can tell your story like you. Therefore, do a deep reflection often and don’t be afraid to pen-down your pains and successes as your story. By so doing and by sharing the penned-down stories about your journeys, a life may be blessed, saved, inspired or motivated.

Your story as the first black person to have received a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Saskatchewan has dominated the social media, how did you do it?

My engineering journey: I obtained a Bachelor of Science in Physics/Electronics from Olabisi Onabanjo University in 2008. During a discussion with one of my physicist friends (Carl Magus), Medical Physics came up.  After that discussion, I researched about Biomedical Engineering with a Major in Medical Physics and decided to apply for an MSc in Biomedical Engineering.

I got admitted to Tampere University of Technology, Tampere Finland, met challenges, rose above them and graduated. Furthermore, I moved to Canada for the finish-leg (i.e. PhD in Biomedical Engineering) of the journey and I have recently graduated from the PhD program and currently work as a Lead Metallurgical Engineer here in Canada.

How: Biomedical Engineering /3D printing is novel, innovative and a recently added branch of engineering. A few points to note, I did not start out as an engineer but worked my way into engineering. Also, I surrounded myself with like-minds, researched through books and internet to see beyond and tap into the innovation that will dominate the future, and to access information and to search for admissions and scholarships. Prayer was my hiding places when things didn’t work out as planned and I love to just dance in my room to cool off whenever I need it (smiles).

What will you like to tell those young Nigerian women who are almost giving up on their big dreams because of hardship and lack of opportunities?

Define who you are, why you are who you are and Life:  Define who you are and where you are going. My go to quote is “if you don’t stand for something, you will stand for everything or anything, and when you stand for everything or anything, you stand for nothing”. We live in a society where people try to be like other people, live the dreams of other people, and completely abandon their dreams because they have no purpose or do not know their true abilities and potentials.

Now, we see a lot of people rush into the make-up business because it’s the “in-thing”. I have seen several people abandon their BSc.s and venture into computer science and information technology because they said it’s the “in-thing”. Or decided to obtain an MSc in Offshore Technology because the Oil and Gas sector is the “in-thing”. Getting an additional skill is always a good idea but abandoning your career for it means you didn’t know why you started that career in the first place and that entire time spent in that career is almost a waste of quality time.

Information is Power / Invest in Your Life: A lot of time people wait to be served information on a platter of gold and this in fact is one of the biggest limitation. Please do not wait for anyone to do the things you can do for yourself for you as no one loves you like you do (not even your spouse). And we must always remember that nothing good comes easy, as such, we must give life a good fight.

Fight for what you believe in, fight by using the “power of google” to access that information, exercise patience to digest and analyze the information, invest quality time into your career (profession or business), plan and be organized, read books to expand your knowledge base, expand your network and utilize your network, find a practical support system / mentor who is not afraid to tell it like it is.

Renew Your Mind: Dear sisters, male brains are not any different than ours, therefore, let us together stop seeing being female as a set-back, instead we must see it as an opportunity.  As a female engineer, I know for a fact that a lot of companies have female employee quota and as such, you stand a chance.

Let us together start teaching ourselves and our girls to be our own saviours, think and strive to be successful and be the money-bag rather than waiting for a man (dads or boyfriends or husband) to save us/them. Finally, I beseech you to dare to be limitless, dare to start that business, dare to start that company, dare to channel that cause, dare to be different, dare to study science and dare to be innovative.

Do you think leaving Nigeria has moved you closer to achieving your dreams?

The answer here is no, as I believe that a lizard in Nigeria cannot be a crocodile anywhere else. In the face of the several issues Nigeria currently faces, we have seen several Nigerian youths rise above the challenges or utilize the “population power”, “social-media influence” and the “under-development issues” to their advantages and they are making it big.

In fact, some of them back home have better lives than us out here abroad. Let me do a little analysis: Statistics have shown that the population of Nigeria will grow to 399 million in 2050 and Nigeria will be 3rd largest country in the world after China and India. While everyone else may panic, I see human capital, I see access to cheap labour for manufacturing, I see billions being made in real estate as the population grows. So, your problem-solving skills and how you approach problems determine what you make out of it irrespective of location.

Dr Adeola Olubamiji wants to bring STEM back to Nigerian schools.

You are in the top 5 of Canada’s 150 most influential black women. What does this mean to you?

Being appreciated and placed in the top 5 of Canada’s 150 most influential black women is indeed a privilege that I still can’t believe. Thus, it has challenged me to be better, to do more and to continue to positively influence and contribute to my community.

Having recorded these fantastic feats at 32, what are your plans for the future?

One of my plans is the introduction of “Additive Manufacturing (AM) / 3D-printing technology” to the Nigerian manufacturing sector. AM technology is rapidly growing across multiple industries and applications: medical applications (e.g. surgical implants, prosthesis, dental and tissue-engineered tissues and organs), aerospace applications (OEMs for airplanes and fighter jets), automotive applications (OEMs for car engines), energy industries (customized valves, heat exchangers), tooling for plastics processing, and manufacturing of customized consumer plastic products and decorations.

Several college students / graduates / professionals in Europe, Asia and North America have continued to utilize 3D printing to provide custom-made products for consumers and consequently raising successful entrepreneurs with registered companies.

AM training and skills offered to Nigerians will enable manufacturing of consumable polymeric and metallic products at reasonable costs, empowerment of professionals with skills to make their resumes more appealing to employers in different engineering sectors, enable raising entrepreneurs and reducing Nigeria’s extreme dependency on imported metal and plastic goods.

For this generation and the oncoming ones, how do you want to be remembered?

People already call me the pepper seller or hawker turned PhD holder (“the limitless pepper hawker”) and this is already a source of motivation or inspiration to black girls and women everywhere. However, I am hoping to be the Nigerian who fought for the re-introduction of STEM into Nigeria (on the industrial and education scale).

I have made contributions (and still making contributions) to the body of knowledge of innovations in STEM through journal papers that I published in different prestigious scientific journals. I have also attended conferences focused on advancements in manufacturing and served as a panelist in conferences on discussions such as implications of digitization of manufacturing and so on.

Furthermore, I have been called one of Canada’s most influential black women for my contribution in science and technology and this is indeed a thing of joy as I have only lived in Canada for 5 years. More than before, I have recently focused on youth /women empowerment and I will continue to do my best to serve as not just a role model but also a mentor.

This empowerment is mostly done through speaking at events and provision of an open-door policy to everyone through my social media platforms. Lastly, I am pushing daily to advocate for the re-introduction of STEM programs to the Nigerian primary and secondary schools and the re-introduction of exciting STEM shows to the Nigerian TVs and YouTube channels delivered by scientists with Nigerian accent and names.

Tell us, are you a lover of Naija jollof?

I am Nigerian so my love for Nigerian party jollof rice is unwavering and rock-solid. I try to stay healthy so I try to eat Nigerian party jollof rice not more than once every 2 weeks. For now, Nigerian pepper soup (fish or assorted meat) seem to be frequent on my meal plan as it’s a reliable source of protein and the little pepper I add to it makes it sort of Nigerian.

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