Nothing in the world works in isolation: Meet Tosin Onabanjo

Tosin_OnabanjoTosin Onabanjo is a Research Fellow in Energy Systems at Cranfield University, UK. Her research is actively contributing to the development of the Nano-Membrane Toilet, a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and designed for people lacking access to modern sanitation. Here, she shares how a microbe ‘Saccharomyces cerevisiae’, popularly known as baker’s yeast, influenced her non-conventional multidisciplinary career path. Meet Tosin on her Soapbox on Saturday, 9th July in Milton Keynes, as she speaks on “The Role of Microbiomes in the Energy Economy”.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

TO: I have a non-conventional career path! I started out as a Microbiologist with the intention to become a medical doctor. I got fascinated by microbes and their applications, so I completed my Bachelors in Microbiology at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Nigeria and went on to get a Master’s degree in Biotechnology at University of Hertfordshire, UK. Prior to my Masters degree, I worked as a Technologist in a leading environmental consultancy firm in Nigeria for about 2 years.  Because, I had strong interests in applied microbiology and environmental sustainability and was also picking interests in bio-fuels and applications, I obtained a PhD studentship at Cranfield University in 2011, to investigate bio-fuels application in gas turbines. For 3 years or so, I immersed myself in internal combustion engines and the engineering discipline. It was like ‘learning backwards’ and a great leap out of my comfort zone, but it was worthwhile, especially because  I had a baby within this period. A few months to the completion of my doctorate programme, I saw an opportunity to be part of the ‘Nano-membrane Toilet Project’ as a Research Fellow in Energy Systems. I was offered the position and didn’t have to think twice, because the project matched my interests and was for a greater good.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

TO: I would say my mother, although quite a number of people and circumstances have additionally influenced it. My mum was a public health nurse. She was actively involved in public health interventions including health education, setting up of local clinics, disease screening and immunization. So, I was surrounded by volumes of science books and magazines. I was conversant with diseases, vaccines, human anatomy and medical subjects such that chemistry and biology came naturally to me. Based on this influence, I chose science subjects and wanted to become a medical doctor.

However, in 2002, I picked up a medical literature that had a list of qualities of a good doctor with a checklist for young adults. I thoroughly went through the checklist and I could not find myself on that page. This led to a period when I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do as a profession, as I could no longer find a reason to follow the medical career path. About the same time, I picked up baking as a hobby (which I still do). I made quite a lot of pastries and was using baker’s yeast, although I didn’t realize at the time that I was handling a beneficial microbe. I noticed that my kitchen wooden mat was degrading and every effort to clean this up weekly resulted in a pile of some sort of substance that I didn’t understand. On this occasion, I noticed that the substance had a similar resemblance to baker’s yeast and it just fascinated me. It took me another year to put a name to it and learn about the role of Saccharomyces cerevisiae in the food and alcohol industry. In my fourth year in the university, I took up a research project in fermentation and picked up many more interests. I was interested  in researching more applications of similar organisms and the discovery spurred my interest in sciences and was the basis for which I furthered my studies in Biotechnology. So my career in science has been a journey, but my mum sparked that interest.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

TO: One of the main aims of my project is to recover energy from faeces (poop) for the development of a next generation toilet that would not require external energy or water supply and would not require sewer connections. Considering the amount of environmental pollution, land degradation and spread of parasitic worms and infectious diseases that are associated to poor sanitation, this research can provide a global solution. It can significantly shift the way we utilise or treat human waste. It could change the life of a girl child and enable more children to have complete education and that is very motivating for me.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

TO: I like to call soapbox ‘Science out of the box’. Soapbox brings science to the wider society in a non-conventional pattern — a relaxed, non-technical atmosphere. I also think it is a way to give back. I have been inspired by other female researchers who dared to let others in their world. I believe science is for everyone, irrespective of interests, abilities, skills, tolerances, likes, and dislikes, and our passion helps us to overlook our limitations, so I saw the opportunity to share, build and inspire.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

TO: A mixture of excitement and anticipation.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

TO: Nothing in the world works in isolation —our body, the environment, galaxy etc. We should take cue from this but unfortunately our educational system and work spaces are different. I would like to see more interdisciplinary research and multidisciplinary education. I look forward to the National Microbiome Initiative that plans to understand the microbial communities in humans, animals, crops, soils, oceans, etc and how they influence the global system.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

TO: To have a dogged determination, develop resilience to nay-sayers and systems. The world is struck by ‘negative mindedness’ and this could be self-imposed or from people, rules, systems, processes, policies etc., so resilience and bouncing back from setback is key. Also be certain. If you don’t know what you want, people can make you believe in what you don’t want. So I would advise that a (female) researcher be clear about the answers to the questions, ‘who are you?’ and ‘what do you want?’. To surround herself with motivation. My family has been a strong support. I also have a Christian belief system that has greatly influenced me in this regard, even when I personally think I cannot do something.

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