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Profiles

Anne, the geneticist

Anne Muigai, Professor of Genetics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Anne Muigai, Professor of Genetics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Prof Anne Muigai is a molecular population geneticist with over 17 years’ experience. Under her belt is a doctorate degree in Population Genetics and Molecular Biology from JKUAT.

She is humble about this but she is the first female professor in the field of genetics and was the founder chairperson of the Department of Botany at 26 years of age.

Until beginning of this year, she had been the co-ordinator of the postgraduate programme in the Botany department.

She has published articles on prehistoric fight between hunters and gatherers dated 1,000 years ago in Lake Turkana. On top of all these, she is a Taxonomy Group Member of the African Union, advising on issues relating to genetic resources of indigenous animals. She has more accolades but we have less space here.

In person she is anything but professorial (whatever that means anymore) as JACKSON BIKO found out when they had tea at a cafe.

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I didn’t Google you, so when I was looking for the most professorial lady— distractedly dressed with functional shoes—you surprise me with this trendy jacket you have on. It’s not a jacket I would have imagined on a professor.

(Laughs) Because professors are not great dressers?

Hardly ever. I guess most have more important issues in their heads than to think of clothes. But, seriously, of all the things you could have done with your life, why genetics?

Genetics found me. My dad was a scientist. He’s one of the pioneers of maize breeders in Kenya. I only realised how genius he was because he showed us his work and his passion. We had a fruit garden and he’d take us around telling us about pollination, germination and all these things. It’s only when I got to university that I realised that Zea mays was real?

Ze-what?

That’s the scientific name for maize. We always talked about it using the scientific name. I wanted to become a dentist but missed dental school by one point. I cried because I had also missed my second choice which was pharmacy. When I was finally taken in for a Bachelor of Education course, I was like, ‘God, I don’t want to be a teacher.’

My father was a single dad, he told me, “go study education and when you finish it I’ll take you to the US and you’ll do dentistry. I’ll have saved money.” I picked botany and zoology and I was sucked into this beautiful science. I never bothered to take my father up on his offer.

Tell me something about animal genetics that would excite me.

(Pause) My PhD was on characterising the indigenous sheep genetics of Africa. Our sheep are not native to Africa, not like the elephant, rhino, cheetah and lion. Turns out the sheep were once like wild antelopes in Asia and man domesticated them. When he started migrating, he moved with his food and that’s how the sheep ended up in Africa. Sheep came in through Egypt, crossed down Sudan, stayed a bit in Ethiopia, came down to Kenya, and then down to South Africa.

Jetlagged sheep. People in academia are known to be socially awkward, they live in their own world. What’s your handicap?

It’s not necessarily professors but scientists or people who have a big passion. I can talk about genetics the whole day, maybe that’s a handicap.

What are your qualities that you least admire?

I am very impatient with slow people. Slow in the sense that maybe I have asked you to do something and send it to me by Monday and then you decide to take a month. Sometimes students think I’m very aggressive, unfair. In fact, my daughter who studies in JKUAT sometimes hesitates to say I’m her mother because she doesn’t know what she will be told.

Are you curious about your own genetic history?

The genealogy. This is where from a small amount of blood we can actually tell much more than genealogy. I can tell you what disease will kill you. I’ll know if you are prone to obesity, or if you have the gene for addiction. We can tell whether you have the genes for breast cancer. Would you want to know? Or would you wait. I don’t think I’d want to know myself.

What are you bad at?

Operating the TV. I have to call my son when I want to watch a movie. (Laughs) Normally, I will press the wrong thing and everything goes. I’m like, ‘oh my gosh! What do I do? How do I get the sound?’

Who’s been your greatest influence?

My father. He was a single dad in the 70s, divorced. Raised three children, never remarried and completely committed to his profession. From him I learnt integrity. He was a civil servant, first director of research in Kenya. He had a GK car but he would drop us to school in his personal car and then go back home to pick his government car. He never spent more than he needed to, he never stole money. Very straight man.

How did your mum influence you?

She is, I even wonder how they got together because she is a proper mama, very much in the world and everything. She is the one who’d be like, ‘get a boyfriend, you know you need children.’ My dad would never want to hear anything like that. She is the first person who started calling me Professor Wangari. She planted the seed to think about being a professor.

Is it harder for women with PhDs to get married?

If I introduce myself like, ‘Hi, I’m Professor Ann.’ You’ll look at me differently. Like I have horns. (Laughs) Traditionally, educated women are deemed unruly or militant. How will you manage a powerful woman like that? They ask.

How do you think your husband “manages” you?

He’s a breadwinner.

Does that “manage” a woman, if the man is a breadwinner?

No, not necessarily. He doesn’t see me as a scientist. He sees me as a friend. If you see me as a professional then I guess there is already a barrier. But he says I’m difficult. (Laughs). I mean, if I’m passionate about something then I will go for it. But I believe in harmony and unity and that the man is the head of the home and all. So we don’t have those things of who’s the boss. We consult. It’s also how he treats you.

Do you ever introduce yourself as Prof. Ann?

I still have an issue when people say that you have earned it, use it! When I introduce myself as Ann Muigai they say, no, you forgot Prof. I’m like really, does it matter? They are like yeah, yeah, it does. But when you do that people treat you differently. Some wonder how I am so young to be one. I don’t want to be looked at differently or in any other way.

What are your biggest fears?

(Pause) I used to fear death but I am not afraid anymore because I have faced death. I was at Westgate, and I was shot twice in the chest.

No way!

Yes way. (Chuckles). And I survived that. And I did come close to dying. I felt myself letting go, that point of release. Now I don’t fear death anymore...been there done that. (Laughs)

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