George William Kajjumba’s childhood in Masaka, Uganda included a daily water trip. One year, a seasonal drought dried up a local spring, forcing him and his family to travel longer distances – sometimes miles – in search of drinking water.
That childhood experience inspired Kajjumba, now a doctoral student in the UNLV civil engineering program, to pursue engineering. Fields is the perfect field to combine his research knowledge and interests with his quest to find cutting-edge solutions to global crises.
“We have so many problems on this planet, ranging from the food crisis and poverty, to climate change, water scarcity and much much more,” Kajjumba said. “I chose to enter engineering and academia to pass on my knowledge gained and help communities around the world meet the pressing challenges of our time.”
If 2021 is any indication, Kajjumba is on track to do so. This summer he was invited to attend the prestigious 70th Nobel Laureate Meetings in Lindau, where he had the opportunity to exchange ideas with Nobel laureates and some of the world’s brightest young scientists. He was also selected as one of only 19 participants in the Trailblazers’s new fellowship program in Engineering 2021, a new initiative launched by Purdue University earlier this year.
We caught up with Kajjumba to learn a little more about his path to engineering, his current job and goals for the future, and his experiences representing UNLV on the national and global stage.
What drew you to UNLV?
Faculty members, especially my mentor Erica Marty – who is also a former Nobel laureate.
Applying to postgraduate school is like a competition, so I applied to many universities. In my case, I received five offers from different universities, so I had to evaluate which school would be the best option. I drafted part of a research proposal on wastewater treatment and sent it to various professors I was interested in working with. I told myself that I would work with the first person to respond to my proposal. Within three hours, Dr. Marty had reviewed my proposal and responded with questions and comments. Her attention to detail and thoughtful suggestions about my research became a crucial factor in pursuing my doctorate at UNLV.
She also encouraged me to apply for both Lindau and Trailblazers programs. At first, I was not sure about the application, but I’m glad I did because both are great opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals.
What is your current research focus?
My current work focuses on helping to overcome water scarcity and food crisis.
People need a few simple things to survive: oxygen, water and food. According to the United Nations, 25,000 people die every day due to starvation. With this in mind, I began to ask: how can we treat wastewater to recover lost nutrients and find ways to include them back into our food production?
Through this research, we are helping to address three critical challenges: hunger, poverty, and the water crisis. I want to make sure we can meet the sustainable goals of the UN so that people can avoid poverty and stay healthy.
Tell us about the Nobel Laureate Meetings in Lindau and why was UNLV representation important?
Every year, young researchers around the world get the coveted opportunity to learn from Nobel laureates as part of the Lindau Annual Meetings of the Nobel Laureate.
Meetings are traditionally held in the small German town of Lindau, and the aim is to bring together scholars and laureates to discuss the latest developments in the Nobel Prize-winning natural science disciplines: physics, biology, chemistry, physiology and medicine.
Having people from newer universities, like UNLV, attend a conference of this size is inspiring. I hope that my invitation to the meetings will stimulate the interest of the students and provide motivating evidence that someone they know, who chose to attend an institution serving minorities and received their education in Uganda, had the opportunity to talk to Nobel laureates. .
What have you gained, both personally and professionally, from participating in the Nobel Prizes?
Meetings bring together people from different geographical areas who share a common discipline for improving the environment and increasing our understanding of the universe. Brainstorming practical approaches to vaccine management and distribution with 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, George P. Smith, is what I call a “wow” moment.
Meetings operate on the principle of dialogue. I had a chance to interact with young scientists from over 100 countries, most of whom I may not have met at any national conference or meeting. The meetings also provided a unique opportunity to educate other researchers about my work in overcoming lack of clean water and food production.
Why are programs like Black Trailblazers in engineering mates important?
The scholarship program prepares promising Black scholars approaching the completion of their doctoral degrees or postdoctoral appointments at American universities for a career in academia.
They do this to feed students during their academic journey as representation for Black scholars is almost non-existent. The program is highly competitive, with only 19 students selected to attend and meet other professionals at the academy. They aim to increase the number of friends in the academic world by helping them make good connections and navigate their post-graduation careers.
What advice would you give to other minority students concerned about lack of representation in STEM?
We all have different challenges, but I believe everyone, regardless of color or gender, has a purpose on this planet. The question is, “When you fall, how do you get up?” My solution for anyone who can read this is to find a coach or mentor because this person can help you navigate professional challenges. You need to find someone who fits in perfectly with your trip.
When I received the five offers to join the graduate school, many people gave me advice about the school I should choose. Some people said I had to choose a high-ranking university and others questioned that opinion. I turned to my mentor, who suggested that the best way to decide was to draft a proposal and wait for someone to respond. The person who responded meant that they would have time for you and be there for you. Find what? It turned out to be the perfect solution.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I want to be a source of knowledge for scholars and communities around the world.
I would also like to see the expansion of the organization I helped start, Uzuri Health & Beauty. I started organizing in 2017 with a colleague, Michael Kayemba, to imagine how we provide health care to local communities.
As a global society, we care a lot about our external beauty, but we do not tend to care so much when it comes to the engine within us – our health. Our organization hopes to change that. For example, when someone comes for a hair or nail appointment every day or every week, we also make sure he does a medical checkup. In this way, we can help people in our communities face fewer challenges when they get sick.
Over the next decade, I want to extend this model to all of Uganda and East Africa in general.
Do you have any final advice for those who are interested in a career in higher education?
Follow the academy if that is your passion. You need to ask yourself, “Is this something I really want to do?” Like any industry, you have to work aggressively. If you have passion, then this is the career for you.