Abisola Kehinde, a current PhD student at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who earlier bagged first-class honours in Biochemistry at the University of Lagos, speaks to OPEYEMI ADEFEMI about her academic feats
Tell us a bit about your background.
I am Abisola Kehinde, born in Lagos State, Nigeria. I am 26 years old and I grew up in both Lagos and Ogun states.
How many times did you take the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination?
I took UTME twice and it was not because I didn’t pass the first time. In my first attempt, I didn’t have enough score to get Medicine and Surgery but with the score, I was offered Biochemistry at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State. However, because my aim was really to study Medicine and Surgery, I decided to take UTME again the following year. But when on second attempt I still didn’t get enough score to make Medicine and Surgery, I decided to settle for Biochemistry.
You eventually graduated with first class honours, having made 4.91 CGPA and also emerged the best graduating student. Was that a target you set for yourself from the first year?
Not at all. When I got into UNILAG, I wasn’t planning to graduate with first class or finish top of my class; I just wanted to be average because it’s a lot of pressure to be a top student.
What would you say placed you on the road to making first class honours?
For UNILAG, balloting for hostel accommodation is usually difficult. So when I got my first semester result I was surprised that I made first class. Again, I heard that one would get an automatic hostel as a reward for being on first class. From there, I continued to strive harder. Then you don’t want to be on first class today and be on 2.2 tomorrow. So I decided to continue like that.
Before my master’s (at the University of British Columbia, Canada) I have always cultivated the habit of getting the best of results. I put in 100 per cent in every exam.
What was your study pattern on campus like?
I sleep a lot and I read a lot. My pattern is flexible, which means that I can read anytime and basically in most places. I usually aim to finish the syllabus before mid-terms, I make my notes and finish reading early. Exams are usually time for revisions of my read notes. By examination time, I would have covered the syllabus at least two times or more. Before my university days, I used to have problem with time management, but in the university, I got one of my friends to teach me how to manage my time.
In Biochemistry class in UNILAG, notes are not really given on the course; you even have to beg for materials or find a way around it on your own if you want materials. So, we had to buy textbooks, read and make our own notes. So, a lot depended on how well as a student you could make your own notes. I remember some of my course mates would ask for my notes.
With all the efforts you put in, would you have been disappointed if you did not graduate with first class and finish at top of your class?
Towards the last semester, I already got an award for having the best CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average) in my class; so, it would have been bad for me to have that award and not emerge as the best graduating student.
Was there a time you felt like giving up on your first class goal?
No, I always believed education will make me successful.
What kind of people are your parents and did your upbringing have any impact on your excellent academic performances?
My parents are disciplined people who believe that education is the key to success. Before my dad passed on, he used to fondly call me professor. My parents believe that a child should attain the highest and best possible education within his/her capacity.
I have been a consistently outstanding student since my primary but I didn’t tell my parents about my performance while in the university because you know how Nigerian parents can spread the word faster than the Internet. Since I had been consistent, they were not expecting less. They just knew I was going to succeed in anything I do. In my second year in UNILAG when I told them I had 5.0 CGPA, my father was so thrilled and he started spreading it. Everyone would approach me and tell me that they heard from my dad that I was a first class student. Since then, anytime he asked about my grades, I’d simply tell him, ‘I am doing well’. Before my final exams, I got an award as the student with the best CGPA and he was over the moon. He would entertain our visitors with the award story, telling them the details. During our convocation, the programme booklet was like a photo album and had my name printed on it. So, whenever we had visitors, my dad would bring it out to entertain them. It was a thing of joy. He would tell anyone who cared to listen even in random places. I was so happy that my parents were so proud of me.
How did you avoid distractions while in the university?
Despite studying hard, I found time to enjoy the social life on campus. As I mentioned earlier, I started reading early and the social part was how I relaxed. I didn’t allow myself to get distracted as I kept reminding myself that I had a goal. That was just by instinct.
What were your most memorable moments in School?
That would be during my master’s. There was this UBC (University of British Columbia) three-minute thesis People’s Choice Award that I won. I was less than a year into my programme and when I saw the competition’s poster, I was just like “Let me try it and if I don’t win, I can try again next year.” When I got into the competition, I attended a tutorial on how to speak. Luckily for me, I won the faculty prize and that was like the first one ever. It was a memorable moment because I wasn’t expecting to win. It really meant a lot to me. I could communicate my research to a broader audience and they understood me. That was the highlight of my master’s degree programme.
Can you recall some of the challenges you encountered during the programme?
During my first year as an undergraduate, getting a good accommodation space on campus was challenging, and for my master’s, I was transitioning to being an independent researcher in a developed country. Even though my supervisor in UNILAG let me do my research work independently, it was kind of different when I got to the University of British Columbia. There was this graph in Biochemistry that we had to do by hand back in Nigeria and I was like “How am I going to get all my graph points on a paper?” And my course mates looked at me and were like “You draw graph on a paper?”And I answered, “Yes, we do that in Nigeria.” So, they told me I’d have to do it on a computer and they put me through.
Did you go for master’s immediately after your first degree?
After my Bsc, I uploaded my result and my long-lost secondary school mentor was so impressed that he persuaded me to go abroad for my master’s. I didn’t want to take his advice then because UNILAG had promised to give graduate assistantship role to best graduating students. I was thinking UNILAG was going to give me graduate assistantship role, which would allow me do my master’s alongside. For some reasons, they were delaying the appointment and I was advised by the Dean of the Faculty of Science to go abroad. I took his advice and I applied. Then I looked at supervisors that fit into my research area in my undergraduate degree. I eventually got admission into the University of British Columbia.
Did you get a scholarship for your master’s programme?
Yes, I did get a fully-funded scholarship, which also came with living expenses. I actually got a lot of money from different angles. I got the entrance scholarship because my CGPA was high (4.91). And when I finally resumed, my supervisor was really impressed that he added extra funding for me. So I had more than enough money so I didn’t have to work all through my master’s programme in Canada. I was also advised to apply for external scholarships, which I got and I got another one meant for females. It was easy for me not to think about jobs; all I did was focus on my studies.
After my master’s I got a very high percentage, 91.8 per cent GPA and when I applied, the professor was like if my GPA was that high, I should also get funding for a PhD programme, which I did. The experience has been wonderful.
Who are your mentors in your chosen path of career path?
It might sound funny but I really don’t have anyone I look up to. But my mantra has always been to be hard-working. When I was in my secondary school it was my teacher that was close to being a mentor for me but obviously that wasn’t about my career path. He was a very intelligent man, so I always looked up to him. In 400 Level, the project supervisor that was assigned to me became my mentor and we would discussed my next career point. As I proceeded, I began to look at people and lecturers in my chosen field. Now I can access different research works. Along the line, I picked up several mentors.
What really inspires you to work as hard as you do?
I want to become a professor but I still have to do my post-doctorate. I plan to apply for a post-doc after my doctorate either in industry, like biopharma, biotech and the like the academia. If I don’t get into the industry I will just keep to academic. I can also apply to be a professor at home and abroad. I don’t want to limit myself to any country. If Nigeria’s insecurities are not too much by then, I really wish to set up a lab or at least when I’m on my sabbaticals, for free research studies for students in Nigeria during my vacation or extra periods. I just really want to give back to Nigeria, encourage other students and teach them. That is the plan if I stay on the professorship track.
What do you advise students who admire your achievements and are aiming for same?
First is that they should make sure they don’t skip classes. All classes are very important, no matter how flexible the course might be and also, they should try to finish the syllabus, do assignments and make their own notes. Depending solely on whatever the lecturer has taught you in class is not enough. There is no way your lecturers will set questions that are out of scope or syllabus. There is no way you will finish the syllabus and still not excel. The syllabus doesn’t take much time if you start early. There is also a need to strike a balance between your academic and social life. That is what I believe.
What would be the Nigeria of your dreams?
The Nigeria of my dreams will be one where many indigenous fully-funded researchers, lecturers and students work with the government and private sector to invent solutions to our problems, such as food insecurity, health, good roads, power supply, social equity, etc.