Fridah Mokaya: First Black Woman To Receive A PhD in Nuclear Physics

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Fridah Mokaya First Woman To Receive A PhD from the Uconn Image/Courtesy
Fridah Mokaya First Woman To Receive A PhD from the Uconn Image/Courtesy

By Kimani Kuria

The academic achievements of Kenyans in the diaspora has put the country in the world map of academia. This is evidenced by the likes of Dr. Patricia Kingori, Oxford University’s youngest black and female professor, Professor Robert Mokaya – the only black professor of Chemistry in the UK feted by the queen, Dr. Maria Othieno Bayerl, and Dr. Fridah Mokaya, the first black woman to earn a PhD in Nuclear Physics from University of Connecticut (Uconn) and who is the subject of this article. 

Background

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Fridah was born into a family of five – four girls and a brother – as her parents’ second born daughter. She was born and raised in Nairobi.  Her parents went the extra mile all through her childhood years to give her and her siblings the best life they could afford. She says, “I can never forget to give a special mention to my mother who was the disciplinarian and who ensured that we turned out to be fine children in society.” At that early age she knew that she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up, a dream she would realize despite several hurdles along the way.

Education in Kenya

Dr. Fridah Mokaya is an alumnus of Pangani Girls High School where she says her future was shaped. When she was in  Form 3, she was required to let her academic performance decide if she was going to take either the humanities or the sciences path that she desired. She failed to hit the mark by 2%.

The nuclear physicist was not about to give up and with the support of her father she was allowed into the sciences class. With the opportunity granted, Fridah outdid herself and worked hard attaining an A (Plain) grade in her Physics examination at the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations. She looks back and is grateful to her Physics teacher, Mr. Orinda and the deputy principal at the school for believing in her potential.

After her O-levels, she enrolled at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) for her undergraduate degree in Physics. At the university, things did not go her way at all. She spent countless nights ploughing her books and at the end, she only managed to attain a Second Class Lower Division, and that broke her heart. In an interview, she recalls of this time saying, “I had never felt so distressed in my life. All the arduous work I had put in, including the late nights for a second class lower?” Despite the setback recalled the words of Mr. Kamau, one of her Physics lecturers who would always say that no one would ever take what God had planned for her. At that time, however, no one would blame her for not believing that.

Also Read: Dr. Maria Othieno Bayerl: From Being Labelled A Monkey To Becoming Top Surgeon In Europe

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Early Career

Upon completing university, she was employed at Barclays Bank Kenya as a business analyst holding the position for seven months between 2007 and 2008. She however did not want to settle and was already planning to enrol for her graduate degree at the University of Nairobi. 

Move to the United States of America

However, she had her plans detoured to a different path. In Dr. Mokaya’s words, “But then there’s this thing called LOVE that can change your path. You know same was the Magnetic field changes the direction of particles (Physics must come in). I had a boyfriend (who is now my husband).” Her then boyfriend from when she had left high school had relocated to the US when she was in college and during one of the lovebirds’ phone calls, she told him about her plans for a Masters degree. This would be the start of a new life for Frida. He advised her to make her application to a university in the US and with a giant leap of faith fuelled by the hope of being with her loved one, she made her applications just a month before commencement of classes.

Also Read: Top Ten Best Countries For Kenyan Students To Study Abroad

Masters and Phd Degrees

She was accepted into Binghamton University (SUNY) for her graduate degree in Physics. Her research at the institution was in High Energy particle physics and did a final thesis titled “Parafermi Coherent States”. She then went on to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy, Nuclear Physics (Hadronic Physics) at the University of Connecticut UCONN in 2010. 

There she analyzed high-dimensional data from the Radphi experiment at Jefferson National Laboratory to extract the measured spin density matrix elements using physics modeling, python and C++/C programming in the CERN ROOT framework. She would then graduate and become the first black woman to graduate with a PhD in Nuclear Physics.

As a professional, Dr. Mokaya describes herself as a self-motivated, quick, and independent learner with a strong interest in applying her problem solving and data analysis skills to solve problems of interest in the fields of big data, analytics, and visualization.

What Can One Do with a Nuclear Physics Degree?

According to Dr. Fridah, the list is endless and opportunities are ever available. The field is broad and has a variety of applications such as Nuclear Medicine, Nuclear Power, and Forensic Studies. With these one can venture into Forensics, Biomedical Research, Data Science, Academia, and even Finance using transferable skills acquired in the coursework. 

Also Read: African Countries with The Best Education Systems

Personal Life

With a successful entry into the US where her boyfriend was based, the two would later get together and start a family. She got her first daughter in January 2012 while undertaking a challenging course at UCONN and had to juggle being a wife, mother, and pursuing a hefty course. She is keen to note that a solid support system is very crucial, saying, “There were days I felt like I would lose it; research can take you to those extreme regions because of the unpredictable nature. I thank God for my husband. He has been the best support system.” 

Success Tips

She encourages people to know that they can achieve anything they want, and so much so without ‘connections’ or a privileged background. The Christian lady also emphasizes that God makes things beautiful in His time and so people should learn to trust him. From the horse’s mouth, she says “My greatest wish is that there is someone out there motivated to keep going and follow their dreams. Challenges along the way should propel you to keep going and not discourage you.” Moreover, she says that she is committed to influencing more women and girls to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects and career paths.

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