Iyiola Oladunjoye is a passionate microbiologist and an advocate of One Health. He recently attended the 43rd Scientific Conference and Annual General Meeting of the Nigerian Society for Microbiology (NSM) where he presented a paper on Advancing Careers in Microbiology through Strategic Mentorship in Nigeria. Here are his thoughts…
Knowing the Researcher
I am Iyiola Oladunjoye, a passionate microbiologist and an advocate of One Health. I serve an honorary position as the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Young Ambassador of Science to Nigeria and was also recently appointed as a member of the Young Leaders Circle, an advisory board group on youth and society. During childhood, I was always intrigued by the effects of infectious diseases in the society and this prompted my decision to study microbiology at the University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria, where I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree with First Class Honours in 2018. While undergoing my studies, my diverse internship experiences in medical diagnostics and animal health, coupled with my personal experience exposed me to a wide array of global infectious diseases threats in environmental health, food safety, zoonosis and antimicrobial resistance. This prompted my advocacy on the importance of One Health approach aimed towards addressing these issues through awareness and sensitization in schools and markets, and research to inform scientists, STEM professionals, and policymakers on the need for effective collaboration to solve global health threats across the spectrum of environmental, animal, and human health. These activities have a profound impact on my career path, as I currently work as a Microbiologist in a leading environmental consulting firm in Nigeria, thus, having a dynamic experiences across these three spectrums. In addition, I also hold an executive position at Rouleaux Foundation where I promote science literacy for sustainable development in the health, agriculture, and life sciences sector. I regard myself as a One Health professional.
Motivations behind the research on employability of Microbiology graduates in Nigeria.
There is a general issue with unemployment in the country as 33.3% of working age class in Nigeria is unemployed according to recent data published by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics. The severe underfunding of science, technology and innovation in the Federal Republic of Nigeria has deterred the advancement of careers in STEM-related fields most especially in biological and biomedical sciences including Microbiology. This reflects on how poorly we handle significant problems that can be solved with the application of microbiology including food safety, environmental degradation, and infectious diseases such as COVID-19. The lack of investment in research and development is one of the reasons why we can’t boast of a homemade vaccine or therapeutics to tackle COVID-19. Also, the inhibition of microbiologists to actively engage in medical research in Nigerian hospitals has led to limitations in microbiology practice. This has caused limited opportunities for microbiology graduates seeking to pursue careers in the field. However, this seeming lack of opportunities is preventing their understanding of the prospects of microbiology. Since there are pressing global health threats that need to be tackled with the adequate practice of microbial sciences, this informed my decision to conduct a survey to access the understanding of microbiology students and recent graduates about prospects in microbiology and the need for strategic mentorship to advance their careers. I presented my findings at the 43rd Annual Conference of the Nigerian Society for Microbiology at the University of Port Harcourt.
The surprise elements in the process of the research
It was surpassingly shocking that the survey had a massive response after deployment. Within 15 days, over 1000 respondents comprising microbiology students in several universities across the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria had attempted the survey. The rapid response rate from the survey participants depicts that the research topic was very interesting and much needed at this time. There is an active need for microbiology academics and professionals to understand the perception of students regarding the course and job prospects in Nigeria. I will buttress this by mentioning that this is important because over 50% of these respondents mentioned that they didn’t choose microbiology as their first choice of study while registering for Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB)’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). In fact, a higher percentage of the respondents would also consider going for another course of study after their first degree in microbiology, majorly in health sciences fields such as Medicine, Pharmacy and Medical Laboratory Sciences. This is, however, counterintuitive because over 90% of the respondents believe that microbiology can revolutionize medicine, environmental sustainability, public health, food safety and agriculture. But the fact is, the opportunities for microbiologists to accomplish these feats are not readily available in Nigeria. The severe lack of opportunities, as well as the stiffness of the system, retards advancement in microbial sciences. Hence, the government should create opportunities that will enable rapid diversification of microbial sciences for socio-economic development in the country.
Main issues from the research
The key factors identified from the research were mentorship and understanding career prospects in microbial sciences. I opined that deliberate investment in the youth is germane for national development. Stakeholders in microbiology spanning academia and industry should develop strategic mentorship systems and continuing professional development for students, as this would enable them to acquire more confidence as they progress with their careers.
The peculiarity of the Nigerian labour market has misdirected a large percentage of graduates of microbiology into the service sectors of the economy like banking, insurance, entertainment, and vocational endeavours. In this era of global health threats like emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, environmental degradation, climate change, food insecurity and antimicrobial resistance, every nation needs a human capital base, of which the professionals in the microbial sciences are critical, to mitigate these problems.
Do we really need to recalibrate the Nigerian tertiary education to address youth employability?
Yes, I agree that the Nigerian tertiary education curriculum needs to be developed and up to par to address the complex challenges of the 21st century. Students have to be trained not just to memorize and reproduce lecture notes, but also to understand the applicability of their fields of study in real-life settings. There is a need to integrate multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning in higher education in Nigeria, as this would enable students to understand the importance and effectiveness of collaboration. For example, I never learnt about the One Health concept in classes. I discovered this approach based on my observation whilst undergoing an undergraduate internship at the University of Ilorin Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The knowledge and understanding of One Health among other novel ideas would be intricate to develop the skills and knowledge of microbiology students.
In addition, novel concepts and technologies need to replace some archaic ideas in tertiary education. There should be a constructive partnership between institutions of learning, and public and private sectors to train college graduates that are well-equipped with practical and experiential learning. The Students Industrial Work Experience Scheme (SIWES) organized by the Industrial Training Fund (ITF) has been rendered ineffective by many tertiary institutions as their academic activities won’t allow them to fulfil the 6-month of industrial training recommended by ITF. Many students have just a few weeks to gain practical experience and even spend more time to secure an industrial attachment, also for an unpaid internship. This reflects the reality of limited job opportunities in Nigeria. Lack of access to resourceful academic materials is also an impediment in tertiary education as many tertiary institutions do not have an active subscription to scientific databases where updated textbooks and journal articles can be obtained. However, the narratives can be changed if tertiary education can be generously funded by the public and private sectors. Students need to be actively trained with relevant skills that will enable them to be solutions-oriented and entrepreneurial.
Identifying the concerned stakeholders to address the issue of employability of Microbiology graduates in the country
First, the issue of employability of microbiology graduates can be impacted positively through the establishment of the Microbiology Council of Nigeria (MCN), geared towards regulating, professionalizing microbiology practice and increasing research funding for microbiological research in Nigeria. The bill to achieve this is currently awaiting a second reading at the national assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The legislative arm of the government is a stakeholder that has a major role to play towards achieving this. In fact, this shouldn’t be delayed anymore since we’ve experienced what the lack of effective funding in microbial sciences research has led to insignificant progress with addressing COVID-19 issues in Nigeria, especially with achieving vaccine equity.
Second, academics also have a role to play in grooming microbiology students effectively to address cogent and pressing global health issues. Students need to actively understand the prospects of microbiology in Nigeria as this would allow them to develop an interest in the key area(s) they want to contribute solutions to. There is a need for a strategic mentorship system to achieve this, as well as improvement of learning curricula.
Lastly, private institutions in medical diagnostics, public health, environmental services, fast-moving consumer goods, and pharmaceuticals, among others should strengthen the microbiological workforce by partnering with tertiary institutions of learning to train a new generation of microbiologists capable of revolutionizing their respective industries. This can be achieved by facilitating industrial attachments for students, creating more entry-level positions for recent graduates and investing in research and development. This would foster the creation of job opportunities for microbiologists.