Dr. Sheila Ochugboju brings global vision to Alliance for Science leadership

By Joan Conrow

June 1, 2022

Dr. Sheila Ochugboju doesn’t need a crystal ball to see what lies ahead.

“The future is definitely going to be African,” predicts the Oxford-trained plant biochemist who today became executive director of the Alliance for Science.

Sheila’s forecast is based on the continent’s youthfulness — the median age in Africa is 19.7, compared to 38 in China and the United States — and its rapid adoption of innovations propelling the fourth industrial revolution.

“Our job right now is to help young Africans understand their responsibility in leading and shaping the world,” she says. “We have this window of opportunity to do it and good communications is a way to do it really fast and reach people really quickly.”

As a global communications initiative that recently opened an office in Kenya, the Alliance can help Africans seize the moment. But it’s not the only role that Sheila foresees for the organization she now leads.

She envisions the Alliance creating a bridge between the micro scientific work being conducted at research centers like the Boyce Thompson Institute, which hosts the Alliance, and its macro application in resolving global challenges, like ending hunger, reducing poverty and addressing climate change, especially in developing nations.

“Within the macro and the micro, the connecting point is comms,” explains Sheila, whose vision for AfS is grounded in the Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the United Nations, where she worked for many years.  “Communication is not just the catalyst; it is the pathway that joins the two. It is what energizes each side.”

Sheila wants the Alliance for Science to live up to its name by forming partnerships with other scientific institutions and organizations to help restore and balance the political processes that lead to systems changes. A key role for the Alliance will be linking research, training and policy making while showing how it all fits into the big problem — food security.

“So, we’re not just telling interesting stories about interesting science then waiting for people to join the dots. Because people are too lazy now. They’re not joining the dots,” she says. “We have to expand our science communication to say ‘and it sits here. And it looks like this when it works well’.”

She sees AfS becoming the go-to source for resources related to climate change, environmental restoration, biodiversity protection, food security and above all, ending poverty. “Leaving no one behind becomes the over-arching goal,” she says.

“When you look at food security in Africa, biotech is absolutely a part of that,” Sheila explains. “We see technology as an enabler to leading better lives across the board. If you can’t secure your food systems, you can’t do anything. I saw that as key with the work of the Alliance.”

Still, as a global development expert who revels in understanding the big picture, Sheila knew she wouldn’t be satisfied if the Alliance remains focused primarily on agricultural biotechnology.

Sheila experienced her own biotech baptism by fire while conducting research into the Bt and scorpion toxin genes during the height of anti-GMO activism in the United Kingdom. Faced with Greenpeace’s creativity and rapid mobilization, Sheila quickly saw that she and her Oxford colleagues had failed to plan for public outreach. They had no avenues to explain the why behind their work.

So, she began meeting with Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Community organizations in South London through a grant from the Royal Society for Public Understanding of Science. Her surveys and interviews gave voice to underlying fears that genetic technologies could be used for eugenics and other racist applications at worst, or merely focus on benefitting majority populations or corporate needs at best.

“I realized you have to do a lot of listening before you communicate your own message,” she recalls. Sheila went on to turn what she learned into award-winning campaigns for GM public outreach, using creative collaborations with dance companies on epigenetics and spoken word poets on genetics, identity and belonging.

Besides listening, researchers also must learn to converse in new ways, Sheila says. In their work, scientists “are not telling a story, but using a precision lens and deliberately excluding things. They have to use a very narrow framework and that makes it difficult to have conversations with others,” she explains. “I had to develop that ability to be a credible scientist, but it leads to a lonely place.

“It took years to unlearn that language and learn a new one,” she continues. “In the process, I gained an understanding of where science sits within the spectrum of life.”

Sheila has long been fascinated by the beauty of nature — an interest borne of her early childhood in the Nigerian rainforest, where she lived with her uncle and seven cousins while her mother attended college in the United Kingdom. She recalls carefree, happy days closely observing her environment and reporting her discoveries to her family, who advised her which animals and plants could harm or help.

She initially thought she would follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor, but a visit to his practice soon disabused her of that notion. Her mother, an orphan who had struggled to educate herself and provide a home for her younger brothers, urged Sheila to pursue an advanced science degree instead.

“It’s important for a woman to be able to take care of herself,” her mother cautioned, because “you cannot rely on a man your whole life.”

Though Sheila took her advice and focused intently on earning her doctorate, her family began to worry that perhaps becoming overeducated would make it more difficult for her to marry and have children. “I remember thinking, what, another mountain to climb?” but she did get married and had four children after getting her Ph.D.

And with the help of a Daphne Jackson Trust fellowship, she found a way back to the lab, as it offers women scientists in the UK opportunities to resume their research careers after taking a break. “I still think that was my most productive time because I realized what a privilege it was,” Sheila says. She frequently reflected on data and conducted analysis at night, from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m., while her children were in bed. “It gave me the space to craft my own lines of inquiries. The world was quiet then.”

After leaving research science and broadening her career towards international development, Sheila was eager to return to Africa “to discover who I have become and what the gifts of my diverse journey can offer.” She found a job with the African Technology Policy Studies Network in Kenya and then “new ways to explore questions where science can offer solutions for transforming lives started landing at my feet.”

Sheila then went on to work in Ghana for the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) and later co-founded Africa Knows, a knowledge management and media consultancy. She began consulting across a wide range of development sectors, with various UN agencies and NGOs across Africa. Her most recent appointment was as Head of Strategic Communications for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

“There’s just such a need for individuals who can adapt and rapidly learn new things,” she says “A lot of scientists won’t go beyond one topic, but we can’t afford that in Africa.”

Her creativity and sense of belonging were further nourished through her affiliation with TED, which is dedicated to spreading compelling ideas. Sheila, who had been feeling like “an outsider nerd,” found her tribe among the deep thinkers and visionaries at TED. Being chosen as part of the first group of fellows — the Inaugural Long Island TED Fellows — in 2019 was life changing, and many of the people she has met through TED remain part of her core network.

“That’s a community that I want to bring closer to the Alliance for Science,” she says. “TED scientists have shattered the bias and successfully made science cool and entertaining, but still awesome.  I would love to get their support for the Alliance and co-create spaces to amplify our shared visions.

“Science communication is where I feel most comfortable,” she continues. “It gives me permission to be that complex mix of both geeky scientist and intuitive creative, because we are all more than just one thing.”

In the months ahead, Sheila will be relocating to Ithaca, New York, and meeting with the globally dispersed AfS team and its partners to further refine her vision for its future.

“I’m excited by the challenge of leading a truly global communications program and finding new synergies and opportunities to maximize the impact of the Alliance as a thought leader in an increasingly complex world.”