When she walked across the stage at Auburn University in the summer of 2011, Dr. Esther Ngumbi’s thoughts were 8,000 miles away in her home community of Mabafweni, Kenya. There’s a saying in Mabafweni: The roots of education are bitter, but the fruits are sweet.
Ngumbi came to Auburn in 2008 to earn a PhD in entomology. She has since graduated, completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech, and found her way back to the Plains to work in the College of Agriculture. Her research is dedicated to feeding the world sustainably by studying how the interactions between plants and soil bacteria improve growth, repel insects and tolerate stress.
All the while, she remembered Mabafweni.
“I’m 38, of course. I come from a family of teachers. I remember growing up; I grew up in a very small community, and everybody’s poor down there,” Ngumbi said. “Poverty is really up to your eyes. So I always feel lucky that I was able to grow up and be able to get an education.
“My parents always said they wanted a professor, so I delved into education. And education, of course, you keep on going, and I never looked back to get married.”
Friday, Ngumbi is traveling back to Kenya for her wedding on Oct. 17 to the graphic designer she has been dating for six years. And instead of registering for towels, pans or china, Ngumbi launched a campaign to help ensure she wouldn’t be the only woman from her community of 20,000 to earn a PhD.
“In 2011, I was walking to get my PhD, and I had a flashback and realized that there are so many others in my community that would want to be a scientist like me, but they don’t have the opportunity. I know myself growing up, I didn’t know what a science lab was. I didn’t really know what science is until I went to the university. It shouldn’t be. So I decided the best gift that I can give is a simple science lab so that children in my community and surrounding communities can come and see and experience science.”
Ngumbi hopes to raise $15,000 through an online campaign launched last week to build a simple science lab for local children. She estimates $10,000 for the building and $5,000 to equip it for biology, chemistry and physics, a contrast to the multimillion dollar labs she works in at Auburn.
Though area high schools give students access to labs, Ngumbi fears that by that age, many have lost interest in science.
“The children can be able to do very simple experiments. But I also want them to really be thinkers,” she explained. “I want to be able to have these young students who start looking at their community and seeing, ‘How can we make it better?'”
She also wants the children growing up in her community to be competitive with learners in the rest of the world.
“I want them to catch up with other people. I realize that we are competing for the same resources, and nature doesn’t understand that you come from a poor region,” she said. “You still are put on the same playing field with everyone.”
This isn’t the first time Ngumbi has brought her passion home. A few years ago she and her parents, retired teachers, built a one-room school house for 10 students. Now, the growing building houses more than 70. And in 2010, Ngumbi brought home dozens of books that would lead to the construction of a library.
“I walked around the campus and collected as many books as I could because I was determined to take them back home,” she remembered, adding the books pushed her luggage about 70 pounds over the limit.
“I collected all these books; I couldn’t leave them. So I looked around and saw all these passengers that had little luggages. I had to walk and beg everybody. .Eventually I was able to get the books across. Of course, I was the last person to board the flight,” she said, laughing.
Ngumbi, a mentor for the Clinton Global Initiative University, mentioned the story to a CGU photographer. He helped her win a grant to build a library.
“Everything turned out. He eventually gave me a $10,000 grant, which, when I go to Kenya, part of it is opening the library. So we have a school; we have a library. So I thought, ‘What else am I missing?’ Of course. Science,” Ngumbi said.
Little more than a week away from her wedding day, Ngumbi is ready. She has her dress; she has the rings. All that’s left, she said, is the science.
“I feel like we’re spoiling them. But they deserve it,” she said.