MEET THE WOMAN WHO WANTS PLANT CHEMISTRY IN CONSTRUCTION
1.Could you take us through your background, that is, your early life and education to PhD?
I was born into a family of six (four boys and two girls) to Mr and Mrs Ssempala Ssebagala in 1988 at Mulago Hospital. In my family, values, discipline and education came first. Having been named after my dad’s mum, Alice Nabatanzi, I was always treated in a special way at home. This made me a better person because I always worked hard both at school and home to make my parents happy. Education being a priority at home, we would always have coaching in holidays and my dad always demanded that we do and present 100 maths numbers daily! All textbooks, pamphlets and reading books were available in our home library; so there was no excuse for not doing the work! This may sound tough, but it marked the origin of my academic excellence.
Then Gayaza Junior School gave me the best education foundation any girl child would ever have. Despite the highs and lows of boarding school, I look on the bright side. I would say all my academic achievement both at school and university is, besides my family background, immensely due to the impact of Gayaza.
From the acquired love for maths, I had to choose other sciences to accompany it. But I wanted to be a medical doctor, hence my choice of the science combination – biology, chemistry, physics – and my career interest in the biological sciences, especially the botanical sciences like phytochemistry.
I have achieved all my three degrees from Makerere University: the BSc Ethnobotany (CONAS), the MSc Natural Products Technology and Value Chains (COVAB), and the PhD in Natural Products (Phytochemicals, Nutraceuticals and Nutrition) (COVAB). At university, I was the best in my class throughout the three years and my CGPA never went below 4.3 right from the start. When I graduated in January, 2011, I immediately embarked on the MSc, and graduated in January, 2014. However, during the same time, I was already doing the PhD and graduated in February, 2017 at 28.
2. Why phyto-pharmaceuticals? What career guidance did you get to lead you to this career?
From my mentor, Prof Maud Mugisha Kamatenesi, the current vice chancellor of Bishop Stuart University, Mbarara, who taught me at BSc while she was at Makerere. Because a strong bond grew between us, I collaborated with her in developing traditional medicines, and wrote papers with her. Later my interest and love for research in developing plant products, especially for medicine and food, developed.
3. What is the general role of chemistry in understanding resources around us and what resources are you talking about which concern you in your current day to day plan?
The resources of my concern are the plants, and Uganda is endowed with high plant biodiversity. Chemistry helps us appreciate and realize the different chemical compounds possessed by plants. These chemical compounds are responsible for the different roles plants play especially in solving human challenges. Therefore, phytochemistry is of paramount importance in solving disease, nutrition, construction and many socio-economic challenges we face in Uganda. When we understand what different plants contain, we can provide solutions better, basing on the prevailing challenges.
4. Any role of chemistry in understanding construction materials?
Yes. Looking at construction materials specifically from plants, chemistry can help us discover various chemicals in plants that can be used in construction to substitute imported products. Wood is widely used in construction due to: its thermal properties, acoustic properties, resistance to electrical currents, and the strong tensile strength.
But there is more inside these plants that we need to discover. Take, for instance, the allelopathic properties of plants. We can extract these oils (allelochemicals) and use them as protectors on construction materials to ward off insects, especially termites, from eating up wood and other materials used in construction other than applying used oil from cars. Look at the natural glues from plants, they can be used as binding agents. We need to take up this research and discover. Let’s embrace our plants/trees and limit expensively imported construction materials. It is quite embarrassing and disappointing when construction companies procure and import very expensive materials, especially of plant origin, yet we have the plants here. We need to research and develop what we have and use it to solve construction challenges using chemistry.