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Esther Ngumbi

Doctoral student of entomology
College of Agriculture

Kenya native Esther Ngumbi, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in her home country of Kenya, began her pursuit of a doctorate in entomology at Auburn University in 2008. Under the guidance of entomology associate professor and integrated pest management specialist Henry Fadamiro, Ngumbi focused on alternative strategies for controlling crop-destroying insect pests. On Saturday, Aug. 6, during Auburn's summer commencement ceremonies, she will realize what at times seemed to be an impossible dream when she becomes Esther Ngumbi, Ph.D. That day, she says, will be "the happiest day of my life." A fervent advocate for ending world hunger, the energetic, upbeat Ngumbi has received numerous awards and honors while at Auburn, including most recently being selected to participate in Clinton Global Initiative University 2011 and being awarded a prestigious Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship grant, a program that provides substantial support to women from developing countries who are pursuing Ph.D. or post-doctoral studies in the physical sciences at top universities abroad and who will return to their native lands to lead and contribute to socioeconomic development there.

1. What was life like growing up in the village of Mabafweni, Kenya, in terms of living conditions, way of life, the economy and such?

Life was not easy, and the living conditions were quite harsh for me, my family (which includes my parents, three sisters and one brother) and the community. We were simply poor. I grew up going to the farm, walking every day to and from school, and doing typical women duties like fetching water and firewood and cooking for the family. However, we were a very happy family and were raised to appreciate what little we had been blessed with. At the end of each day we would sit down, share a meal as a family and pray for a better day tomorrow.

2. How unusual is it for someone from your village to earn a Ph.D.?

It is very unusual. I get to become the first female to have a Ph.D. in my community. We have very few educated girls; however, I am working toward reversing this trend. I already am working to encourage students in Kenya to work hard in school and am providing any other support they need so that in a few years we will have several Ph.D. holders.

3. As a child and teenager, then, you had no female scientist to look to as a role model and mentor, so who or what motivated you to dream big and 'go for the gold'?

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Ngumbi. They have been the greatest source of my inspiration. They encouraged my siblings and me to reach the highest possible levels in our careers and education. They also pointed out that they wanted to have a professor in their family. They were teachers, but because of the meager salaries paid to teachers, they had to sacrifice almost everything to keep us in school. I still remember vividly how my parents would travel to the city of Mombasa to collect their paychecks but eat nothing before coming back in the evening, hungry and tired. I wondered at their ability to be in town, in the midst of all the best foods, with money to purchase that food, but choosing not to spend it on themselves so that we could go to school. Such determination in my parents inspires me and gives me the strength to reach for the stars, and persevere against challenges, however daunting they seem.

4. So will your parents be here to see you graduate?

Yes, and I am so very excited because my graduation is simply their graduation. They laid the foundation and I will love having them here to celebrate with me when I graduate. Recently, I talked to my father and he was imagining his first ride on an airplane to see his daughter graduate. He simply put it, 'I close my eyes, I imagine this day, and then happiness just fills my heart! That day, I will be the happiest dad in the entire world.'

5. You're a strong advocate for ending world hunger and have been extremely involved in Auburn's War on Hunger campaign. Is there a relationship between your commitment to end world hunger and your chosen field of entomology?

Yes, a very big one. A majority of the world's extremely poor and hungry live in the rural areas and depend on agriculture to survive. A key problem facing agriculture is crop losses due to insect pests or insect-vectored plant diseases. Also, as I was growing up, there were years in which we lost almost all of our crops to insect pests. Then we would lack food. I therefore, felt an interest to pursue a career that would permit me to study these insects, and discover sustainable ways to control them so that farmers can have plenty of harvest which would then translate into fewer people going to bed hungry.

To read more about Ngumbi and her partnership with Auburn's Women in Science and Engineering Institute, go to this link.

Jul. 11, 2011