Habibah Atta is a Senior Lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The PTDF scholar spoke recently with AbitoCitta on her career, post graduate training in Nigeria and other issues. Here are the excerpts
AC: Could you please tell us about yourself?
Habibah Atta: I am Dr. Habiba Iliyasu Atta from Okene, Kogi State, Nigeria. I am married to Muhammad Mustafa Raji, and I am a mother of three beautiful children. I am a Senior Lecturer of Environmental Microbiology at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. My primary areas of research are Petroleum Microbiology and Bioremediation; my other research interests include: Microbial Ecology, Biogas production, Bioaerosols, Organic Agriculture and Biocontrol of pathogens. Aside from teaching and research, I have held administrative positions in the university, which include; Department of Microbiology Examination Officer, and Faculty of Life Sciences Orientation Officer. I am a guest blogger on the American Society for Microbiology website, and I am also a member of local and international professional Microbiological societies.
AC: A look at your profile reveals that you had your first, second and doctorate degrees in Nigeria. What could you say about the post graduate training in the country?
Habibah Atta: I would say that postgraduate training in Nigeria has improved over the years because there is an increase in the number of Nigerian university lecturers being sponsored to conduct their doctoral studies abroad. And this has inevitably led to these academics returning to their institutions and training their postgraduate students with the same set of skills. This way, capacity building is introduced into the system consciously or inadvertently, thus raising the standards of postgraduate studies. In my case, when I was a doctorate student, I got awarded a scholarship (Petroleum Technology Development Fund-Local Scholarship Scheme) and got sponsored to spend six months in the United Kingdom to conduct part of my research. On my return to Nigeria, this experience enabled me to modify the curricula of some courses in order to teach my students new technologies in my field. But having said that, there is still room for improvement in postgraduate training in the country. Most professors in Nigeria do not have recurring grants to fund competitive research, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world. And if these grants are lacking, it will be very difficult to train postgraduate students in their line of research. When grants are awarded, it predictably leads to more research and then of course, more postgraduate students are better trained under those professors.
AC: What is your area of research interest? And what have you done in this area in the last 15b years of your teaching experience?
Habibah Atta: My primary area of research is Petroleum Microbiology, and both my Master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation were centred on this field. My research in this field is focused on using microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, to remove petroleum hydrocarbons polluting the environment. This is an eco-friendly and cost effective way of cleaning the environment as opposed to using physical or chemical methods. I was granted the award, “Innovators of Tomorrow”, by the STEP B Project of the Federal Ministry of Education, Nigeria, in collaboration with the World Bank, for my Master’s thesis which focused on methods of increasing the rate of crude oil degradation by bacteria. And during my Ph.D. research, I was awarded the Petroleum Technology Development Fund for my dissertation which focused on using molecular methods in identifying bacteria capable of degrading polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I have published several journal papers and presented conference papers (local and international) in this field; and I have supervised and graduated both Master’s and Doctoral students in the same field. I am currently developing a laboratory manual for the course, Petroleum Microbiology, at my department, and I am currently collaborating with other experts in writing books on the subject. And because I don’t want my research to end on the bench in my laboratory, I have initiated plans to work in the field with petroleum engineers to conduct a bioremediation project at an oil spill site. I am currently conducting research as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Rutgers University (U.S.A), on bacterial degradation of aromatic compounds that are common pollutants in the environment.
Another research interest I am very keen about is the use of solid wastes to produce biomethane (biogas). I focus on using wastes such as municipal solid waste, agricultural waste and animal manure to produce biogas by the action of methanogens through anaerobic digestion. At a much larger scale, this can rid the environment of pollution, and also produce an alternative power source for lighting and heating purposes. I have written a book chapter, journal article, and I am currently developing other manuscripts on this subject.
AC: Looking back at your experience as a PhD candidate and now as a university teacher and supervisor, what would you want to see change about PhD study in Nigeria?
Habibah Atta: I would say that the things I would like to see change in that regard are about three. First, I would appreciate more funding opportunities for senior academics teaching and supervising doctoral students. These funds should also include modern facilities for research and teaching. This would greatly enhance the quality of doctoral dissertations produced.Second, I would like to see the private sector, and not just the government, funding research in our universities. This would challenge universities to produce research that is directly applicable in industries, and these industries can explore hiring doctoral students in the relevant fields after completion of their studies.
Finally, I would like to see more collaborations between universities in Nigeria and institutions in developed countries so that faculty and even doctoral students can benefit from the advanced research environment in those institutions.
AC: How was it easy juggling between the roles of a teacher, wife and a researcher?
Habibah Atta: That is a tough question (laughs!). Well I guess, having a supportive family was very helpful. My spouse, my mother and other members of my family were always willing to assist in any way they could, so that I could focus on my work. And I also learned the importance of setting my priorities and proper time management. It’s not easy juggling these roles all at once but I am happy to say that with a supportive family and good time management, I have been able to achieve a balance between my personal life and my career.
AC: Looking forward, what one thing would you want to have achieved in the next 5 years?
Habibah Atta: There are so many but if I were to pick one, I would say: In the next five years, I would love to be a professor who would have a strong positive impact on her family, her community, her university, and the nation as a whole.