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Fridah Mokaya first black woman to get PhD in Nuclear Physics

5 min read
You might think that “coming from nowhere with no connections” might stack against you, but you could say it worked in my favor. I can now proudly say my name is Dr. Fridah Mokaya, of course the “Dr” being the most recent addition to my name.

Fridah Mokaya: This is the inspirational story of Kenyan who is excelling in the field of science globally. It was first published BY AW MAGAZINE:

I am a second born in a family of 5 (4 girls and 1 brother who happens to also be the last born in the family). I was born and raised in Nairobi Kenya. I am lucky to have both my parents who went to great lengths to provide for us and make sure we got the best they could offer. I can never forget to give a special mention to my mother who was the disciplinarian and who ensured that we turned to be fine children in society.

I am the first person in my family to pursue a science course. Growing up I wasn’t sure how to get there or what the path would look like along the way, but I always knew where it would lead. At early age, I recognized that I wanted to be a scientist and as soon as I learned to be a scientist is a profession like any other, I promised to do whatever it takes to get that which my heart wanted.

After my Primary school, I joined Pangani Girls High School. Being a middle child and since my older siblings (they are twins) had gone to the same school, this became my dream school based on their reviews! It was in this school that my future was shaped.

In Form 3, we had to choose our specializations either in Sciences or Humanities. This would be determined by an examination with a cut off mark set at 70%. I remember I scored a 68%, narrowly missing the cut off mark for Sciences. Given my score, I was supposed to take Geography.

Well let’s just say God knew I had a future in Physics because I would not have it any other way. I refused to go to the Geography class and my dad had to be called to school to solve this issue.

One thing I will never forget is that in all this, my Dad did not talk much, he just told the teacher that I was his daughter and he knew me and what I can do and he had no doubt that I will excel in physics. This was the turning point. My Physics teacher Mr. Orinda, saw how distressed I was and knowing my potential told the deputy principal that he had allowed me in the Physics class on condition that I had to perform. Let’s just say that I worked hard and it paid off. I got an “A” in Physics when I sat for my KCSE exam. Looking back, I know that were it not for the deep belief that my parents and teacher had in me, I may not be where I am.

I was admitted to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya to pursue a Bachelor of science degree in Physics. When God is about to bless you, He prepares that path for you. I had a rough finish to university education. I did my four years in campus with very good grades and just a few days to graduation when the graduation list was out, lo and behold my name was on the second-class honors lower division list. 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? But I remember one of my Lecturers (Mr. Kamau) told me that no one can ever take what God had planned for you. It was hard to believe that statement at that time because I was very heart broken.
Immediately after graduation, I got a job with Barclays Bank Kenya for 7 months before I relocated to USA.

I guess the big question is how did I come to the US to study! While working at Barclays my heart was not settled, and I kept telling my dad that I want to go back to school and do my masters. Plans were underway to register for the Master’s program at the University of Nairobi. 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). We met just after I had cleared my high school. He left for the US a few months after I joined college. I remember he called me one day in July 2007 and while talking I mentioned to him about my plans on pursuing my Masters course.

Fridah Mokaya: This is the inspirational story of Kenyan who is excelling in the field of science globally. It was first published BY AW MAGAZINE:

He told me to apply to grad school in the US. At first, I was doubtful if it would work. I mean this was July and in the school, he wanted me to apply the classes were to commence in August.

I took a leap of faith and God did it again. I got accepted to Binghamton University (SUNY). I did a master’s degree (M.Sc. Physics) there and graduated. I later applied for a PhD Program at the University of Connecticut.

I started the PhD program at UCONN in the Fall of 2010. In January 2012 I was blessed with my daughter. So here I had to balance being a mum, a wife and a PhD student. Honestly this was not an easy task, the pressure can be too much if you do not have a good support system. 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.

There were so many days that I would come home and just cry, maybe because something I had been working on for a long time did not work as I expected, but he was very patient and he would encourage me to keep pushing.
He did this to the very end. He and my daughter have been my greatest supporters.

This brings me to something very important, a dedicated support system is very vital in a PhD journey, you need it, it can get stressful sometimes. You need friends and family who will keep pushing you.

March 2020
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