“To get young Africans into space exploration, we must start by getting an interesting curriculum” – Chidinma Iroka

Chidinma Iroka Joy

Our ‘Leading Women in Africa’s space industry’ series continues with Chidinma Joy IrokaChidinma Joy Iroka is a Chief Engineer in the Engineering and Space System Division (ESS) of the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA). She was one of the two people in the Radio Frequency (RF) team of the Nigerian engineers and scientists that were trained in Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, United Kingdom during which she participated in the designing, building and testing of Nigerian satellites (NigSat-2 and NigSat-X) launched in 2011 with uplink and downlink frequencies at S-band (2.0-4.2GHz) and X-band (8.0 -8.5GHz) respectively. She is currently working on her PhD in the Electronic and Electrical Engineering Department of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Ogbomosho, Oyo State, Nigeria.

 

She is a Space Leader, the African Space Leadership Congress (ASLC) Women and the Technical Adviser of the Space STEM Educational Initiative for Africa (SSEIA), the Co-founder and the Secretary-General of the Women in Aerospace Nigeria (WIAN). 

In 2017, the United Nations Women in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) invited her to New York for an expert meeting where she gave a talk on “Space Science and Technology: A veritable tool for demolishing gender ceiling in Nigeria”. She is one of the four United Nations Space4women mentors from Africa.

In this interview, we discuss her experiences in the industry.

Can you give us an insight into your journey in the space sector? 

My journey into Space industry was divine. Since I was a kid, I always had this fascination for gadgets, games, and technology. I was drawing very well and I knew I was talented with skills for the craft. With that passion, I began to ask my elder ones how to profit from these great talents. I wrote entrance exams with which I gained admission into the University to study architecture but because of the family financial constraint, my father appealed to me to attend the polytechnic to study electrical and electronics engineering so as to work after the OND and get money to complete my HND. I did as advised and immediately after graduation, I furthered with postgraduate in E/E engineering. Luckily, after my youth service, I got a job with the Engineering and Technical Division of NIPOST and after four years, I went for a written examination for NASRDA job which I passed and was employed. That was how I delved into the space industry.

You are an integral part of NARSDA, how would you describe your experiences so far with the organization?

Working for an organization like NASRDA has been interesting because it not only gives room for research but also the application of knowledge in ones’ core field of speciality.

It also broadens one’s opportunities, especially to society. I also feel satisfied in my job career even with my work with young people both in science, technology, engineering and mathematics although, with my appointment with the UNOOSA Space4Women project, I have extended my mentorship to humanities and law.

Again, I was so excited to be a part of a national project and the fact that space technology was new then, I was going to experience a hands-on on a project which was a kind of “dream come true” as an engineer and coupled with the fact that spacecraft training would be done abroad. Again, being the only lady in my team then gave me an edge to be put through in every work done. I was exposed in so many things both in computer software and engineering tools that I only heard or read on paper. 

Can you tell us about your experience with the Radio Frequency team of the Nigerian engineers and scientists that were trained in Surrey Satellite Technology Limited? 

Yes, I was a member and of course the only lady in the RF team of the Nigerian Engineers and Scientist that were trained.  I participated in the design, building and testing of the NigSat-2 and NigSat-X, the satellites which were launched at S-band (2.0-4.2GHz) for uplink and at X-band (8.0 -8.5GHz) for the downlink frequencies respectively. The training and experience were interesting and unique. Participating as the only lady in my unit both white and black, I was carried along in every step of the building and testing of the spacecraft. Again, it was interesting and also very tedious especially during the testing whereby the RF team members followed the spacecraft for the test at other test facilities outside Surrey… and you know the testing is not at ones’ convenience because usually, the temperature is supposed to be the same with the spacecraft environment when launched into orbit.

You have worked with many departments and organizations in and outside the country, do you think that Nigeria and by extension, Africa, is moving at a good pace in the space sector?

Well, from my own perspective it is a yes and no answer. For example, what I am presently advocating for in Nigeria and Africa at large, is awareness creation in high schools. Yes, primary and high school should be our main target for now. To get the young Africans venture into space exploration, innovation and technology, we must start by getting an interesting curriculum. As the first African to introduce Space STEM Curriculum (SSC), I would advise that we should achieve these goals: 

  • Create awareness in primary and high (Secondary) by creating space clubs and get the government, space vendors and stakeholders to support the movement.
  • To improve and transform the quality of teaching and learning through the activities of Space STEM skills by introducing the “train the trainers programme” using increased ICT equipment and applications in schools with the emergence of living space laboratories (LSL)
  • To improve and transform the quality of access given to girls and women in STEM education and also recognize their achievements and increase their visibility in the Space Community locally and internationally

Just to mention a few.

You are a United Nations Space4women mentor; Space Leader, the African Space Leadership Congress (ASLC); Women and the Technical Adviser of the Space STEM Educational Initiative for Africa (SSEIA); the Co-founder and the Secretary-General of the Women in Aerospace Nigeria (WIAN), can you describe your roles and impact in these various organisations? 

I became a UNOOSA Space4women mentor and ambassador after I attended an expert meeting organised by UN Women and UNOOSA in New York in 2017 and this has motivated me to take up so many responsibilities in encouraging, mentoring and bringing young people into space community. As the women coordinator of the ASLC and the co-founder and the secretary-general of the WIAN, since it is perceived that STEM is a masculine field or career, we encourage the girls to venture into STEM courses, presenting myself as someone who had passed through it and has excelled, and the fact that work environment in STEM is challenging for a woman who already has a career in the space industry, I also encourage them as a wife, mother of three and a full-time staff of NASRDA with other hidden social positions/responsibilities that are not made public.

As a technical adviser, I participated in the SSEIA activity and most time work as a facilitator in almost all their outreaches. The truth is that it is not easy and the good news is that I am everywhere doing what I know how to do best; impacting young people.

To what extent do you think these organisations are pivotal to STEM development across the world?

The importance of these organisations is that they have a common goal of creating awareness to the young people, giving them a head start in STEM education and giving opportunities to build a career in space exploration, innovation and technology, just to mention but a few.

What do you think the industry needs to do in order to break the glass ceiling for more women to participate actively in the space sector?

Nigerian Space Agency, the military and of course all the African space agencies should join forces with the  UNOOSA, AUC  and other stakeholders in the space community to call for “African Space for Women” Expert Meeting with the goals of sharing ideas and expertise regarding space and women, enhancing existing partnerships and forging new ones, strengthening and delivering targeted capacity-building and technical advisory activities, and promoting efforts to encourage women and girls’ involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. 

This should be our first point of action, thank you.

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New Report: The 2020 Edition of African Space Industry Annual Report is now available. It presents data and analyses on projects, deals, partnership and investments across the continent. It also provides analyses on the growing demand for space technologies and data on the continent, the business opportunities it offers and the necessary regulatory environment in the various countries.

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