University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Stories and

Kenyan Graduate Student Accepts Faculty for the Future Fellowship

Morrine Omolo

Morrine Omolo (Department of Food Science and Nutrition) is the first University of Minnesota student to be selected by the program.

Graduate student Morrine Omolo’s interest in food science started young. Growing up in Kikuyu County, Kenya, in the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO), science seemed to surround her. Nevertheless, Omolo struggled to find a role model in the field. There were books and stories of famous scientist—often men or foreign women—but no one quite like her.

Now finishing her master’s degree at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition (part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences) and becoming the first UMN student to be awarded the prestigious Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship, Omolo’s goal is to be the role model she never had for a new generation of women.

The Faculty for the Future Fellowship supports women from developing countries as they pursue graduate studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields. Since its beginnings in 2004, the Fellowship has been awarded to 560 women scientists and engineers from 78 emerging countries.

One of the 155 women awarded a 2015 Fellowship, Omolo will receive a maximum of $50,000 per year for up to five years to fund her doctoral degree, an accomplishment she says is both a great excitement and responsibility.

“I applied for the award, like a thousand other students. It took months to complete the application and go through the interview process, yet here we are,” she says. “It is exhilarating, especially because the University is a research institution. I know the road ahead will be tough but like every step I have taken to get here, I pray for strength, and walk into the future with hope and determination.”

After graduating cum laude from New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she studied as a Zawadi Africa Educational Fund Scholar, Omolo made the decision to continue her studies at the University of Minnesota after being offered a research assistant position in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition’s Baumler Lab. The position, which allows Omolo to return to Kenya to present her research, was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Alongside advisor Dr. David J. Baumler, Omolo began research focusing on chili peppers and whether they can be used as food preservatives.

“My experience so far has been phenomenal. I have a wonderful advisor who challenges me to grow as a person and as a scientist. [Baumler] believes in my potential and has continually provided the resources I need to develop and gain leadership,” she says.

“It is extraordinarily exciting for Morrine to have won this prestigious award,” Dr. Baumler says. “The [Faculty for the Future Fellowship] award paves a map for her future in the lab and to one day return to Africa to teach and mentor other female scientists. Prior recipients have gone on to become some of the most influential female scientist role models and motivational speakers around the world, and Morrine is right on track to join them.”

Omolo’s leadership experiences at UMN have not been limited to the classroom and research lab. She is also a Graduate Student Representative at the UMN Board of Regents and Department of Food Science and Nutrition (FSCN) Faculty meetings, and she is an Executive Board Member of the Council of Graduate Students (COGS). In all of these roles, Omolo serves as a voice for students, and she encourages other students to take on leadership roles in their departments, colleges, and university life. Omolo also planned programs for graduate students during Global Gopher Events, a series of activities and information sessions for new international students organized by ISSS in late August.

After finishing her doctoral degree studying food borne pathogens, Omolo plans to return to Kenya to teach. Rather than seek a tenure track position; however, she will complement her teaching with research and policy building to enhance Kenya’s food security. Omolo also hopes to continue the work she is doing to advocate for other women pursuing STEM careers.

“Every day I meet young women on and off campus who are struggling with the decision of going to graduate school. I share my experiences with them and help them through the decisions,” she said. “It is amazing the difference we can make by simply listening to others and helping them see the other side of the difficult path we have chosen as women in STEM. I am not an expert, and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have a few experiences that seem valuable to many women I meet.”

When asked about that experience and the kind of advice she would give to girls interested in STEM careers, Omolo stresses the importance of listening and believing in yourself.

“STEM fields sound difficult and complicated, because that’s what [females] hear and are told, but we all have a voice in our head that is our own, one that no one can influence or confuse. I started my journey to where I am today by listening to the voice inside me,” she says. “If you can see yourself as a scientist, engineer, or doctor, then the only thing in your way is yourself.”

Date Published: October 2015