This experience reinforced some long-held beliefs that had pushed Christiana towards a career as a chemical engineer.
As she says, “Science is a catalyst for change to improve the world and the lives of all the people who live in it. Contributions to our understanding of the world we live in have been made by people from various cultures, socioeconomic statuses, race, and gender. This should be celebrated and fostered so that every child sees themselves as part of the everyday fabric of how we work, think and apply ourselves.”
These ideas started early when Christiana was growing up in a large fishing community on Nigeria’s Atlantic coast: “My father, a medical doctor, set a high bar for my education. He had learned, through his own experience, how a good education can contribute to not only economic and personal wellbeing, but how it can also nurture potential. I was grounded by his unshakeable belief in me. He also instilled in me a strong value for community.”
Looking around my hometown, I really appreciated how fortunate I was to have access to basic education and unwavering family support. It lit a fire in me to buck the status quo and aim higher. At the same time, I wanted to inspire young people directly and help them grasp the opportunities they have in front of them but might not know about yet.
Christiana began to pursue a career that gave her a platform to make those impacts. “Nigeria is blessed with energy reserves,” she mentions. “Inevitably, the prospects that this could offer had an influence on me. So, when my mother suggested pursuing a career in chemical engineering it seemed like a logical path to follow. I was naturally better at chemistry and maths than, say, history (too many dates to learn!).”
Inspired to make a difference
The energy industry, dominated by crude oil, promised economic prosperity, but this was not equally enjoyed by the populace. Moreover, it came with a high climate cost. Christiana was much more affected by the things she could see happening right outside her door. In particular, the impacts of poverty on local fishermen.
“Because many fishermen can’t afford the energy costs of refrigeration, their catches are smoked to preserve them. This inadvertently exposes them to large swathes of harmful fumes. It’s health poverty as a direct consequence of economic poverty.”
“Energy is predominantly a centralised industry but the high costs and unreliable grid distribution, especially in developing countries, puts it out of the reach of many. With Nigeria’s abundant quantity of sunshine, it was simple to imagine how a few localised solar panels could make a massive difference to their wellbeing.”
Looking out over her surroundings more broadly, the view from the town falls across the vast open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
It wasn’t hard to comprehend how a small increase in sea levels would have a disproportionate impact on the land. Coastal erosion has already started. If water levels rise to the heights we fear, there is a real danger that my home town could be obliterated. Climate-induced weather phenomena offer up several catastrophic outcomes, but for us, the major threat is flooding.
The desire to address these sorts of issues - to help in resolving the consequences of climate change or inequitable energy provision - provided Christiana with her motivation.
Taking the initiative
Following her mother’s advice, she studied chemical engineering in Ghana. “At the end of the course, I really wasn’t sure what to do, though,” Christiana confesses: “Although I’d learned a lot of theory, I didn’t feel ready to put it into practice. The prospect of progressing onto a Master's degree seemed really attractive. I could develop more practical skills and put myself in a better position to work in industry.”
She noticed that a high proportion of the reference materials used on her course were written by lecturers at Imperial. Together with its consistently high ranking, she determined this must be the best place to study. But this was no fairy tale, and her application for the MSc Advanced Chemical engineering with Process Systems Engineering (PSE) was rejected, based on a perceived weakness in maths.
Determination can be a strong motivator, however, and Christiana wrote back to the department explaining what an exemplary student she was and how committed she was to being on the course. The department was impressed by her tenacity and candour but still responded with another rejection. Happily, they pointed her towards the general MSc Advanced Chemical Engineering programme (ACE), which she gladly accepted.
I’m a firm believer in being in the right place at the right time and all things happen for a reason. I really enjoyed the ACE programme I ended up on. I got the chance to take some PSE modules and even though I ended up with an award for best performance in examinations, the department had been right – the PSE maths really was quite challenging!
Gravitating to industry
Christiana completed her Master's and won the Dudley Newitt Prize for exceptional performance in examinations. She was invited to continue at Imperial and complete a PhD. This focused on designing the morphology of advanced functional polymer microparticles for smart delivery applications in microfluidics.
With her research successfully completed, however, she recognised that her future lay outside academia. Christiana is effusive in her praise for Imperial’s Careers Service who, along with her PhD supervisor, Professor Joao Cabral, she credits as being critical partners in supporting her during the process of securing a role as a research chemical engineer at bp.
Working at bp offered an opportunity to address climate change issues head on. As she puts it, “I see three critical stages of energy provision. We need to maintain steady energy supply to an increasing population and make it more equitably available to all countries, whilst reducing its carbon impact.”
Developing a speciality
Her team at bp was pushing the boundaries in the development of the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis (FTS) process. FTS is considered an anchor technology for producing low-carbon fuels.
FTS can convert carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) obtained from various sources into very long chain hydrocarbons (up to C90), which can then be cracked into low-carbon kerosene and diesel, ultimately supplying the aviation industry and heavy-duty vehicles (HGVs) with low-carbon fuels (with more than 80% reduced CO2e emissions).
FTS can be supplied with CO and H2 obtained from various sources - including biomass, municipal solid waste (aka black bag waste), and direct air capture of CO2, thus providing a scalable alternative to fossil-derived fuels. It's complex, fascinating, and ground-breaking work.
Meanwhile, Christiana also held on tightly to her early motivations of wanting to help people more widely, and a valuable opportunity to do just this emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Safeguarding mental wellbeing
Lockdown was a globally challenging time. Coupled with reorganisation at bp, the circumstances were taking a toll on general morale and in some cases on mental health, including her own.
Christiana volunteered as a mental wellbeing ambassador and began facilitating virtual conversation cafés, where anyone from the business could join and talk through their concerns in a safe space.
Mental health is a critical issue, especially in today’s increasingly uncertain world. I found that simple acts, such as bringing people together in the same space where they can be open and support each other, can be very powerful. Feedback from one café participant revealed it had been the most impactful session she’d experienced in her 30-year career.
Beyond supporting mental health and wellbeing, Christiana’s, perhaps greater passion, is education.
Inspiring the next generation
Christiana readily outlines how a good education provides a good foundation to manage challenges and is a gateway to upward social mobility. Each week at Imperial, she supported school children on free school meals with their homework and wider studies.
There was another crucial aspect to those interactions. Seeing me, a female from a minority background, studying a subject that some have been told is too challenging for them, at a world-class university - well, that was eye-opening! I like to believe that without consciously trying, I represented a new possibility. From my interactions, I could see a mental shift as some realised that aspirations, they had never considered might be part of their future were, in fact, achievable. I gladly answered a lot of questions on A-level grades needed for STEM subjects.
It's obvious that solving tomorrow’s problems doesn’t only mean focusing on her work. Christiana wants to encourage a new generation and she regularly leads schools outreach programmes to connect with young people. This is partly for their own self-fulfilment, but she also acknowledges the need to encourage more people into the sciences.
Our work takes time. Finding solutions needs a constant flow of new blood, ideas and energy to keep things going. The next time I stand in front of a class and ask them to draw a scientist, I’d love to see an array of different colours, genders and backgrounds being portrayed. Most importantly, I’d like to see everyone recognise themselves, their potential, and I’d like to see a solid belief that they can do anything, much like my parents helped me believe that I could.
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