Sheila Ommeh is one of the few scientists who are devoted chicken research, in this interview, we connect the dots from the moment her initial curiosity on agricultural research was stirred to her current research highlights.
SO: Yes, my curiosity started in the early 1990s when I was still in secondary school and I found myself reading a lot about genetic engineering and cloning in the school’s library. Stories about Esther Kahangi, the current Deputy Vice Chancellor at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Kenya, work on tissue culture biotechnology development and other similar ones fascinated and inspired me so much that I looked forward to the day when I would be working in a laboratory doing similar stuff.
Where did your interest in agriculture begin?
After my undergraduate degree in biomedical science and technology in 2002 from Egerton University, I started working as a research technician at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust research institute in Nairobi, it was here that I realised that there was a lot of research focusing on human diseases and little on animal diseases. I resolved to work on animal research and resigned from that position to start looking for livestock related opportunities in various institutions that were researching on livestock. I eventually found an opportunity at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in late 2004, by this time I had also enrolled for my MSc in Biotechnology at Kenyatta University.
When did your mission on chicken begin?
When I joined ILRI, my supervisor at that time, Olivier Hanotte gave me the options of choosing from among three different projects, one on goats, one on cattle and the other on chicken function diversity that he was working on. I was drawn to the chicken one, a decision that up to today I am very proud of. Being, also from Western Kenya, a part of the country where people are well-known for their love for chicken meat, this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass! Since that time, I started reading widely about chicken genetics and set my mind to pursue further studies on chicken population genomics.
Your area of research is on a topic that few scientist are working on, what are some of the challenges you faced while carrying out your research work?
While chicken maybe a small livestock, most people wrongly assume that its potential is equally small, consequently the investment towards this research area has been very limited. In addition, very little research on indigenous chicken genome characterization is available, something I realised when I was carrying out my PhD studies on chicken genomics. In 2009/2010 while on a 1-year African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) placement in Italy acquiring laboratory skills, I also found out that a lot of emphasis was on commercial chickens neglecting indigenous chickens that are important livestock in many rural households in many developing countries. After the fellowship I came back home to apply the skills that I had learned on indigenous chicken and I was lucky that I got a lot support from various people at ILRI to do this.
You recently successfully defended your PhD what are some of the findings that you came up with?
Prior to my studies, no characterization had been done of the new castle disease virus strains from Kenya. I have been able characterize at least three genome strains of this virus that causes Newcastle disease and found all of them to be virulent and are from a recent clade of viruses. In addition, from the first results of gene expression analysis, indigenous chickens may confer some natural immunity to the Newcastle disease since they expressed genes involved in immune response pathways.
In addition, we have been able to set up an in vitro chicken laboratory at ILRI to study viral diseases affecting chicken. Researchers can be able to use the lab to carry out in vitro culture, molecular work, as well as virus infectivity studies.
What are some of the opportunities that you see in the area of chicken research?
Scientists and others in agriculture research need to change their mindset and stop looking at chicken like a small livestock but to look at chicken as a livestock that has huge opportunities especially for rural smallholder farmers. Some indigenous chicken phenotypes are resistant to drought some produce more meat and eggs while others are resistant to disease. If we can tap into this realization, we can develop response strategies to mitigate the famine effects in our region. Indigenous chickens are also a great source of nutrition for the households and development projects need to make this area of research more attractive.
In March, you will be representing AWARD, ILRI and BecA at the international women’s day ceremony in London, tell us about that?
It is a humbling opportunity that I am looking forward to; I credit the AWARD team for this opportunity. The key people that I will be meeting are parliamentarians who are interested in agricultural issues related to women and women scientists who are strategically placed to contribute and make differences in the current poverty scenario in Africa. There will also be members of the British Parliament, current AWARD supporters, academicians, and representatives from NGOs and civil society. I will also take this opportunity to fund raise as I will be meeting with representatives from DFID, Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation among other donors interested in exploring ways on how chicken can change the livelihoods of women.
What are some of the other key events that you have taken part in?
On 2nd February this year, I made a presentation to the World Bank vice president Rachel Kyte during her visit to the CGIAR Centers in Kenya. In 2009, I had the opportunity to meet Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture during their visit in Nairobi and in 2010, I met the president of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki when he came to open the ILRI- Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub.
Who are some of the people who have assisted you along the way?
My supervisors’ professors’ Steve Kemp-ILRI, Olivier Hanotte-Nottingham University, and Alessio Valentini-Tuscia University, have been supportive of my work from the time I started working at ILRI and throughout my PhD studies. The AWARD fellowship, which I got in 2008, has also been instrumental in helping me to focus on my work and advance my career.
Away from being in the labs and carrying out your research work, what else do you like doing?
I love travelling, hiking and mountain climbing.
What are some of your personal lessons that you would like to share with other young scientists?
One of the biggest mistake young scientists make is to take up any available opportunities that comes their way, before starting my PhD studies I received offers to study different research topics which I declined because I was passionate and focused about chicken research, I would like encourage other young scientists to follow their dream and to critically examine their strengths and interests before taking up research opportunities. I have also learnt that having a support group and finding people who can complement your work is important in helping one to forge ahead. As a wife and mother, I have also realized that it is important to have a work-life balance i.e. to frequently step out for some fresh air out of your career and rejuvenate your mind for fresh ideas!