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I Was A Single Mum of Three During My PhD – Nigerian named Cambridge University College President

A Nigerian-born Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience, Ijeoma Uchegbu, who was recently announced as the seventh President of Wolfson College, one of the 31 colleges of…

A Nigerian-born Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience, Ijeoma Uchegbu, who was recently announced as the seventh President of Wolfson College, one of the 31 colleges of the University of Cambridge, on Tuesday morning narrated her academic journey. 

According to the institution, she is set to assume the role on October 1, 2024, succeeding the current President, Prof Jane Clarke.

Uchegbu, who is currently holding the position of a Professor in Pharmaceutical Neuroscience at the University College London, is from Owerri, Imo State.

In an interview on Arise TV, she said she commenced her pharmacy studies in 1981 at the University of Benin, after which she pursued her Master’s degree at the University of Lagos before moving to the United Kingdom for her PhD due to infrastructure limitations.

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After returning to the UK, she said she undertook postgraduate studies at the University of London, culminating in a PhD in 1997 under the guidance of Alexander (Sandy) Florence, the Dean of the School of Pharmacy.

Subsequently, she served as a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde from 2002 to 2004.

Though noted that she came to Nigeria for the first time as a teenager, saying, “I had never been to Nigeria before then. I arrived in Nigeria for the first time in the 1970s. My parents are from Owerri. So moving from London to Owerri in Nigeria was quite a huge difference. But I quickly settled down. I went to secondary school in Nigeria. When I completed secondary school, I went to the University of Benin. And I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed being in the University of Benin. I had great lecturers. It was a dream.

“After that, I went to the University of Lagos for my masters degree while also being a member of staff. It was really nice then in the 1980s. We had students who were really motivated to learn. So it was really a friendly environment for me. And one of the reasons I say that going to Nigeria as a teenager was great was due to the availability of role models who motivated me to aspire a little more than I was willing to do while I was living in London. So for me, that was the big thing, the big difference.”

The Nigerian-British is now a Professor of Pharmacy at the University College London where she held the position of Pro-Vice Provost for Africa and the Middle East.

She is the Chief Scientific Officer of Nanomerics, a pharmaceutical nanotechnology company specialising in drug delivery solutions for poorly water-soluble drugs, nucleic acids and peptides. She is also a Governor of the Wellcome, a large biomedical research charity.

Apart from her highly cited scientific research in Pharmaceutical Nanoscience, Uchegbu is also known for her work in science public engagement and equality and diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

In December 2023, it was announced that she would become the President of Wolfson College, Cambridge in October 2024.

she stated, “I have been working in this field for about 30 years. So, for me, after a life in science and many discoveries, we have some medicines that we are making based on the discoveries that we made. So having this leadership position gives me an opportunity to give back, because science has been very good to me. And academia, too, has been very good to me. I feel that now is the time to give something back because many people were very kind to me when I was growing up. So I would like to create an environment where people can thrive as well.”

Speaking about her professional achievements, Uchegbu said the proudest moment in her life was when she became a professor, adding that she had faced a lot of challenges being a single mother of three children at the time she started her PhD at the age of 30.

She said, “I joined the university in 1997. It was a university in Glasgow. And I really started my PhD quite late, and when I started my PhD, I was 30 years old. And I was a single parent with three young children during my PhD which was quite unusual. When I finished my PhD, I had no belief that I would possibly become a successful academic. So when I became a professor after five and a half years, which was quite fast in the UK, I felt really proud when I got the news that my application for promotion was successful. I was moved by that.

“So being a single mother of three children and an academic was challenging, despite having a sister and a brother helping with the childcare. And I was single for about six years until I married again. So I’m happily married now, and my husband also helps very much with the childcare as well. So it was hard, we were very very poor. We didn’t have any money. We really had to try a lot with the little student stipend that I had. But the key is that I thoroughly enjoyed being a scientist. I loved going to the lab. I loved my experiments.

“And actually the fact that you are a single parent means that when your experiments don’t go so well in the lab, you got something else to worry about. You worry about buying your children new shoes, about cooking dinner that night, and so, because you had two forms of stress, they kind of cancel each other out. I know that sounds somehow, but that was how I managed my life.”

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