Women in science: Sheila Ommeh

The first in a series of articles during the month of March celebrating the achievements of women in science
Each year around the world, International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8. Hundreds of events occur not just on this day but throughout March to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. Organizations, governments and women’s groups around the world choose different themes each year that reflect global and local gender issues.

Meet Sheila Ommeh
Sheila Ommeh is a thirty two year old PhD student from Kenya working on chicken genetics at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Ommeh grew up in her early years on the slopes of Mount Elgon in western Kenya where indigenous chicken is a popular staple food for the rural community. She observed that local breeds are reared by small scale farmers who are mostly women and children.

Unfortunately, viral diseases such as Newcastle disease and the looming threat of bird flu have threatened livelihoods leading to malnourishment, hunger and poverty.
Ommeh has seen the importance of having disease resistant breeds that may help in poverty alleviation. Her current work on chicken genetics is helping her to achieve this.

Currently her PhD is focusing on the study of candidate genes in different chicken populations for resistance, tolerance or susceptibility to chicken viral diseases such as avian influenza and Newcastle disease. She is ambitious to adopt a genetic control towards these viral diseases that currently do not have an effective cure or vaccine.

‘One of my longer term scientific goals is to reduce Africa’s hunger and poverty through a genetically improved chicken breed that will be resistant to disease and easily adopted by the rural community’ says Ommeh.

Ommeh wins AWARD
African women are underrepresented in agricultural research institutions. While African women produce 60 to 80 per cent of the crops that feed their continent, they make up less than 20 per cent of Africa’s agricultural researchers. Many believe women need to have a strong voice not just on the farm, but also in the research laboratories and field sites where new options are being developed and tested to help smallholders crank up their food production.

In August 2008, Ommeh was among 60 African women scientists selected from more than 900 candidates in nine countries to receive an “African Women in Agricultural Research & Development” (AWARD) Fellowship for 2008-2010. AWARD is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the Gender and Diversity (G&D) program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

AWARD fellowships aim to increase the skills, visibility and contributions to research and development of women working in critically important areas of agricultural science in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

‘This opportunity came at the right time in my career,” says Ommeh.

‘It will prepare me for post-PhD challenges. I hope to access a myriad of learning opportunities.

‘I’m confident I’ll gain useful communications skills, among others, from this mentorship program.

‘One of the personal things I am ambitious to achieve is a work-life balance, which is important for both me and my family,” says Ommeh, a mother of one.

Sheila Ommeh

International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
Nairobi, KENYA
Telephone: +254 (20) 422 3328

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