Meet Our Chief Research Officer: Dr. Nina Wambiji

In honour of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we are excited to share more about Mpala’s new Chief Research Officer (CRO) Dr. Nina Wambiji. Dr. Wambiji is an esteemed marine scientist with nearly two decades of experience. She previously worked as the Assistant Director for the Fisheries Department at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. She received her PhD in Marine and Environmental Sciences (fish physiology) from the University of Ryukyus in Japan. Dr. Wambiji is now shifting roles to further Mpala’s research agenda.

  1. How did you get into the conservation field?

I was drawn to conservation because I have been interested in environmental matters since I was young. I come from a family of farmers and my dad was a soil scientist, so I spent many hours listening to soil stories and rocks. My interest in animals continued and I wanted to understand how we used or lived with wild animals, in this case fish in the ocean. I wanted to protect rare and endangered species and this was interesting because first we had to understand the baselines: What kind of diversity do we have? What’s the seasonality? Who is engaged in their harvesting? 

In the last few years, I have been working on species that reside in shallow and deep water and on various marine mammal research efforts. The work involved collecting, combining and synthesizing data on whales, dolphins, sharks, rays and sea turtles which has not only revealed their distribution but also mitigable impacts of fishing equipment. Most recently, I and a big team of collaborators conducted research on billfish species (the marlin, sailfish and swordfish group) which are very important to Kenya and the Western Indian Ocean region. It was important to document the interactions of traditional, recreational and commercial fishers and how we could manage each sector’s perceptions and uses sustainably.

  1. Why did you want to come work at Mpala?

Mpala is a world renowned living laboratory and by this brand, it offers a host of themes that scientists engage with. This job gives me the opportunity to expand my horizons, to share my experiences and expertise from the marine world, to engage with terrestrial work and help build that critical mass of women and men in conservation. The ecosystems may be different but the desire and drive are the same. With research, we are able to chart forward policies, solutions and ignite new thinking to world problems. Mpala gives me that opportunity to mix these two worlds for a common cause.

Dr. Wambiji at Baculi, a viewpoint at Mpala. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nina Wambiji.
  1. What are your top three priorities as CRO at Mpala?

I have three priorities that I will engross myself with as I start my work at Mpala. These are: 

Strategic Planning for Research: 

My goal is to understand all the past and present research undertaken in this beautiful living laboratory, assist in harnessing research by establishing long-term research plans, evaluating prospective commercial applications of research, and identifying new research opportunities. I want to put Mpala in a competitive position to compete with other research facilities worldwide and establish Mpala as the top research destination for researchers from both Kenya and other countries, ensuring the facility’s accessibility, service quality, and scientific quality.

Coordinating Research Activities:

What better joy than having research findings being shared across a diverse group of stakeholders and contributing to solving local, national and global problems. My intention is to support an equitable space centered around co-design, diversity and inclusion in order to build on collaborations and also ensure the visibility for Mpala’s research.

Mentorship and Management:

Mpala is a world renowned institution that has a big footprint in research. My goal is to ensure that young and upcoming scientists are mentored by  mid- and senior-level Kenyan and African scientists, so they build long-lasting networks. During some of my most pivotal decades in marine and coastal conservation, I have strongly believed in mentorship; I am dedicated to this in order to build the next generation of scientists, both marine and now terrestrial. 

In addition,  I am  committed to securing robust data and applying that data to serve both people and the ecosystems that support us all. Mpala has provided space and opportunity for many to contribute to. Together with the scientists, we will harness that data for future researchers to utilize.

  1. Did you have any mentors that had a particular impact on you?

Definitely. I believe all of us, whether we know it or not, have mentors, people who have held our hands, charted our paths and been available to bounce ideas off of. I have had the opportunity to be mentored officially through the African Women in Research and Development (AWARD) fellowship by Dr. Santie de Villiers formerly of Pwani University and Dr. Jacqueline Uku of Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and the immediate past president of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association. Dr. Santie opened many doors for me and introduced me to teams I would never have otherwise worked with. It did not matter that I was a marine scientist and she was from crops, the technical and soft skills mattered in both realms. Dr. Uku’s mantra is, “we need to be FAT – Faithful, Available and Teachable.” She has been instrumental in many ways: giving guidance; opening  doors, or “dropping keys” as we say it, in the Women for the Environment (We Africa) movement and collaborating with me on many assignments. Both ladies were valuable mentors. I was not afraid of their feedback on my work as this contributed to my personal and professional growth.

  1. As CRO, how do you plan to mentor young and upcoming Kenyan and African researchers?

Mentorship and motivation are an integral part of being a scientist, and I have greatly benefited from both. I have gone through structured and unstructured mentorship programmes. Through the AWARD Program, I went through the rigors of a structured mentorship where I was learning about myself, improving on skills, working objectively and building networks. This included having a mentee. I was being mentored, but I was also mentoring others. I intend to share these experiences and what has worked for me throughout my career. I plan to engage the young and upcoming researchers to hear about their dreams and aspirations and pair them with respective scientists and/or projects, courses, and discourses to build their esteem, knowledge and research findings. I intend to follow up with students, so that the growth can be quantified. This is also an opportunity to share experiences and open up networks and resources for other young Kenyan and African researchers.

Dr. Wambiji catching up with her students Mouna Chambon, PhD from Spain and Sylvia Adisa, Masters from USA. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nina Wambiji
  1. What advice would you give women in particular who want to pursue careers in conservation?

The first step is to allow oneself to try something. Women must be encouraged to participate in careers that were originally thought not to belong to them. They must build that desire and curiosity to ask, what if, why not? Conservation is very important; it’s a long-term undertaking, the solutions may take time to be accepted and implementation needs strategy and patience. It is not a field of quick solutions like instant coffee, for even what can easily and immediately be implemented must be backed by data and information. It’s not whimsical. Women should know that there are mentors and cheer leaders out there, both men and their fellow women, so they need not fear.

Dr. Wambiji talking with Samuel Kiuna, a Masters student at Karatina University and recipient of the Mpala Graduate Student Scholarship. Photo credit: Zoe Kaldor

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