Dr. Stella I. Smith (PhD), Director of Research, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba, Lagos, has 154 scientific publications and 11 scientific research grants to her credit and her lab is currently the only lab in the country where culturing of helicobacter pylori (a type of germ that lives in digestive tract or system) is done. In 2017, she was named amongst the 10 Nigerian women pulling their weight in science by Leadership newspaper and 16 prominent Nigerian women that excelled in science and research, by silverbirdtv.com She has also served as a reviewer to 25 scientific journals in her area of profession and as a board member to two.
During the week, she made history as the convener of the first ever Alexandrabon Humboldt kolleg (an international conference) to be hosted in a research institute in Nigeria. The event that took place at NIMR had in attendance her fellow Humboldtians, researchers from different institutions, German Consular General, Dr. Stefan Traumann, among other dignitaries. In this interview with Effects she spoke about the conference, her life as a researcher of over 30 years and lots more.
How did you come about the idea of convening such a monumental conference?
It’s actually the first of its kind holding outside the walls of a university. This is the first time a research institute is hosting the Humboldt Kolleg. The theme is: “From Basic Sciences to Translational Research: The journey so far in Nigeria.” If one is not a Humboldtian, you are not qualified or eligible to organize this conference. Humboldtians are those who have PhD and have had opportunity to travel out to Germany on a post-doctoral fellowship. This fellowship is not necessarily in sciences. You can have PhD in any area of humanities. If you pass through the Humboldt qualification you are now eligible to get an Alexandrer von Humboldt (AvH) Fellowship which is a post-doctoral fellowship. In my own case, I got the AvH fellowship in 1999. I did a two-month language class in Berlin and one-year lab experience in Dresden. The beauty of the fellowship is that you have opportunity also to learn German language and it is fully sponsored, most times it is the Goethe Institut that one attends. The Humboldt-Kollegs are regional and expert conferences by and for Humboldtians sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation aims at strengthening regional and professional networking between its alumni and spark junior researchers’ interest in Alexander von Humboldt Foundation programmes and in Germany as a research location. That is why this event is of outmost importance––the essence is to get the junior researchers, MSc or PhD students and even those who have a PhD that want to network and collaborate with people of like minds and like interests to get to know each other.
What influenced your career as a researcher?
Actually, as a growing up child, I wanted to be a medical doctor. Somehow, I did not get the cut-off point and I did not know how to lobby to read medicine, so I ended up reading microbiology. I discovered that the more I read microbiology the more I was interested in doing research because I wanted to know what were the causes of some particular diseases and how you could diagnose and treat them and that was how I found myself into research and I got hooked in research and not in the university teaching.
Then, where was your first point of research work?
I have been working here in NIMR for the past 31 years. I got this job immediately after my MSc and did not wait one day at home. I must say, those days, jobs were not that difficult. I got this job as a project staff and when I got in I got very much interested in research and here, you only have one promotion if you don’t have a PhD. So, if you want to be a Research Fellow you have to go on and have a PhD. Within a few years, I obtained my PhD. I travelled to do post-doctoral fellowships in Germany, France, and I went back again to Germany in Munich, came back to Nigeria and started mentorship. I have mentored a lot of people with BSc, MSc and PhD as well as having grants, to do actual research that kept me back in the institute and not going to the university to become a professor like my colleagues who have been professors for the past 15 years. I obtained my PhD in 1996, so if you look at that and compare with my colleagues in the university who got theirs around that time, they have been professors for about 15-20 years.
Could you tell us some of your memorable moments as a researcher?
I would say one of the exciting things about doing research is my work on helicobacter pylori. The first time we were able to actually culture the germ in the lab. That excited me because the organism is very difficult to grow, and to sustain it. Most laboratories do not do actual culture Helicobacter pylori. So, for me to be able to get the actual culture was one of the most exciting moments I had and then to see it grow.
Another thing was, when I was doing a PhD, I also work on Campylobacter. Campylobacter is also of the same family with Helicobacter. The one I worked with is the germ that causes diarrhoea in children as well as in adults. That was how I started enjoying research, getting to see these things grow, do a culture, do what we call the resistance check. When I went ahead to do the DNA analysis, I could see some of the reasons why the germ was resistant to a particular antibiotic. Those were my high moments in my research.
What advice would you give young, up-and-coming researchers?
They should be focused and not look at the situation in the country. They should have a focus of what they want to do and go right ahead and achieve it. When I came back from Manchester (I had a pre-doctoral fellowship in Manchester, EU-sponsored), against all odds, you know when people have opportunity to travel out, they use that avenue to leave the country, but I decided to come back and impart knowledge gained and build capacity. We were actually two that obtained the EU fellowship, the second person did not return to the country and today I can say that by the grace of God, I am what I am. So, I want to encourage future researchers to be focused, have a definite plan of what they want to do and achieve in their life and in the future. They should set target and goals for themselves to achieve and make every effort to achieve them without being distracted because if you are distracted you will not make it. You need to remove any form of distraction and focus on what you want in life.
Who are your greatest influence in your career?
My greatest influence was my mother, because when I lost my daddy when I was a year old, she decided not to re-marry and she was always there, an inspiration. She wanted me to be a medical doctor but because I was not one, I went ahead to do a PhD and she just wanted to bear that name ‘Mama doctor’. You know, those days parents want to see their children called doctor or lawyer. I went ahead and got to that level and she was really proud of me. She was my greatest inspiration. She supported me all the way. She gave us the best of schools, just for us to be the best in life. So, my best inspiration was my mother.
What lessons has life taught you as a person?
Life has taught me to be who I am because sometimes, I have noticed that it doesn’t really matter how much you go out of your way to make somebody happy, particularly colleagues, it doesn’t matter how much you create an enabling environment and make people happy, when it is time, they stab you in the back and move on. So, I have decided in life, just be who you are. You can’t be somebody else, if you are doing good, continue to be doing good, irrespective of what you face in life because this life is short. It doesn’t matter how many years you stay in it. Life is short. Whatever you do in life, it is important that you leave a legacy. That is the most important thing. Whenever I go to some places, they always call: ‘Dr. Smith, I was in your lab, you did this, you were this’––this is the satisfaction I get in life, that I am able to make an impact in somebody’s life, that when somebody comes in contact with me as a person they must succeed in life and that is my target and my goal in life generally.
Aside your research works, what other things occupies your time?
I’m a chorister. I love singing. I always go for choir practice and I’m in the women choir. That gives me joy. Even the Bible says, ‘a merry heart doeth good like medicine’; that gives me joy. I love singing. I love being in the choir. I love being around my people and being encouraged and encouraging them as well. I’m not a party person. I don’t go out much because I live in the office premises, so it even makes it difficult for me to go out. It’s just occasionally I attend weddings. I’m more of an indoor person.
Tell us about the people you admire?
Well, one of the people I admire is my late mum, my late sister, Big Daddy and Big mummy of TREM. I admire their boldness, their courage, their selflessness, their giving spirit. I admire Dr. D.K. Olukoya my former boss and personal ‘egbon’ who is a giver as well. These are the major people I do admire that have passed through my life. Some of them are late and some of them are still living. And most importantly, I admire my husband. My husband is somebody who pushes me to become who I am. He’s always pushing me, even when I want to be in the background, he doesn’t want that, he just want to bring me out and I just want to be in the background doing what I love doing but he likes to push me, bring me out, showcase who I am and let people get to know the real me. So, I admire him as a person. We have been married for 27 years and I thank God for that and we are still counting.