Headshot of Noah Okumu on ILRI grounds

Against all odds: Noah Okumu’s path to scientific excellence

‘I want you to achieve the highest level of education that I wasn't able to.’ The poignant words of Allan, Noah Okumu’s late brother, bespoke his unrealized dreams. Hindered by financial hardships, the siblings had faced numerous challenges in their quest for education, often going fishing in the nearby Lake Victoria to get money for textbooks. 

Okumu, an outgoing PhD fellow at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) under the Animal and Human Health program registered at Kenyatta University, overcame the hurdles to actualize his brother’s dreams. Although he missed an opportunity to study in a prestigious high school because his family could not afford it, he went on to excel in his high school exams and then in his biochemistry undergraduate studies at Egerton University

Noah Okumu inside one of the ILRI Labs.
Noah Okumu inside one of the ILRI Labs. Photo Credit: ILRI/Sarah Nyanchera Nyakeri

While in the fourth year of his degree program, Okumu applied for a DAAD master’s scholarship. He was unsuccessful in his first attempt but got the opportunity years later, enabling him to pursue biotechnology at Kenyatta University. While undertaking his master's degree, Noah’s research at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) focused on finding the genes that enabled local chickens to survive viral diseases. 

Driven by an unwavering determination to continue his education even further, Okumu applied for many PhD opportunities but received multiple regrets. Undeterred, he applied for a fellowship advertised at ILRI and was selected as a PhD graduate fellow. 

For the past four years, the young scientist's research at ILRI has focused on harmful bacteria found in food consumed by weaning children. He took a holistic ‘One Health’ approach by collecting children's food in houses, market and production lines, as well as children’s and livestock fecal samples in peri-urban households. His aim was to pinpoint the sources of bacterial contamination and associated antimicrobial resistance and develop practical measures to reduce the risks. 

Noah Okumu in Prague, Czech Republic
Noah Okumu in Czech Republic during the Tropentag Conference 2022. Photo Credit: ILRI/Noah Okumu

One of Okumu’s most memorable moments was being among the winners of the CapDev challenge, a competition between scientists to present their work in three minutes before a mixed audience of fellow scientists and non-scientists. This recognition opened doors for him, providing training in science communication, presentation skills, and writing. 

‘The writing skills that I have gained from my time at ILRI enabled me to win two grants: One from PAMOJA Hubert Curein Partnership Research Grant, a collaborative grant between Kenya and France through the university, and the other an early career grant from the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene,’ Okumu says. 

Thanks to the CapDev challenge, he also had the opportunity to present his research findings at the Tropentag Conference 2022 in Prague, Czech Republic. His new dream is to use molecular tools to find solutions and leave an indelible mark on the field of research and development. 

Cover Photo by ILRI/Sarah Nyanchera Nyakeri

ILRI Capacity Development Newsletter, Issue 4, July 2023

Find capacity development opportunities such as Scholarships, Conferences, Awards, Funding, Workshops, Symposia, Conferences, Learning resources and more.