Published: Tue Nov 16, 2010In Africa's Niger Delta where oil company giants dominate economics, Chinyere Mbachu sees women as the most valuable resource.
Known to most as "ChiChi," this Tennessee Tech University chemical engineering doctoral student says women in her country don't see a clear glass ceiling, they see a mirrored one that reflects what type of education or career they should pursue.
"In Nigeria, most women don't study engineering," Mbachu said. "It is considered a man's degree. Even though many women graduate from universities, our cultural and traditional beliefs do not value education in STEM disciplines for women."
Mbachu knew she had the mindset of an engineer when as children she and her brothers didn't have enough money to buy glue.
"I watched my brothers take gasoline from a tank and mix it with Styrofoam to make glue for us," she said. "I was fascinated with the science and problem-solving."
She carried that memory though high school and told her school director she wanted to be a pharmacist or engineer. But the director balked at her request and she went into food sciences, albeit with gusto. She received her bachelor of technology degree in food science and technology from the Federal University of Technology in Owerri, Nigeria, and completed master's course work in the field also.
When she came to the United States to pursue an engineering degree, she perused university websites and found that TTU's chemical engineering department and the Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources offered opportunities to study environmental engineering for environmental studies. She signed up for the biotechnology, energy, environmental and engineering education, or the BEEE-E2 Research and Learning Community, under the supervision of Pedro Arce, who is also her major professor.
"It has been a great pleasure to be in Dr. Arce's group and work with him," she said. "Dr. Arce empowers and helps each student to achieve their potential through his excellent mentoring and teaching methods.
"As an international student from Nigeria, the major oil-producing country in Africa, I understand deeply how oil spillage and gas flaring and fire disasters have destroyed people's home and their lives especially in the Niger Delta," said Mbachu. "That's why I selected to study chemical engineering with an environmental option focused on using pulsed corona discharges to degrade contaminants from drinking water or fluids."
In summary, her work is directed toward degrading pollutants in drinking water in areas where the lack of potable water threatens health and lives, including her native land or in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico.
Mbachu's work on this environmental control earned her several scholarships and fellowships.
In 2008, she received the prestigious American Association of University Women Educational Foundation International Master's Fellowship; she was one of 74 selected recipients out of almost 1,200 applicants worldwide.
"My award is the first of this type given to a graduate student in the Tennessee Technological University history, and it is a clear indication of the increasing recognition that people from other institutions are beginning to place on TTU's graduate program," she said.
She also received the Society of Women Engineers Cummins Graduate Scholarship, and in 2009 she received the Ivanhoe Foundation Graduate International Fellowship for her work in water. In 2010, she received the Dr. Atkins Student Research Day award.
"It has been a great pleasure to work with Miss Mbachu, a very hard working student determined to make a difference for the people of her native country, in particular the women," said Arce. "Chi Chi has been one of the most focused students in identifying resources for her studies, a sort of an entrepreneur. This is a rare characteristic in graduate students that will serve her very well in her future professional goals."
But awards pale in comparison to the rewards she anticipates experiencing by returning to Nigeria to teach at a university and bringing awareness to women.
"Because women are most often directed to study education, law or business, they don't understand the implication of environmental pollution," she said.
"In this highly populated rural area, we need to create awareness about sustainable solutions to these issues," she continued.
"But my main goal is to use my education and position to teach and motivate young women. I want to develop leadership seminars and make women aware of the ways they can empower themselves through engineering education."
Mbachu is the first female graduate student from Africa to receive a master's of science degree in chemical engineering at TTU, and she plans to graduate this December.