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Vet on call: How system is failing future animal scientists

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DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA

By DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA
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There are two things on which, if I knew in my early career choice, I would probably have taken a different path.

First, I have come to know, acknowledge and accept that in working life, crunching numbers is a constant. Like all other constants, it will never change regardless of one’s career.

Whoever said “numbers don’t lie” will always be right. In this era of evidence-based interventions, any proposal for action will always be required to be vouched for by high quality data that can be verified and relied upon in decision-making. That calls for serious crunching of numbers.

I have, therefore, always found myself working with numbers even when I am making diagnosis of a disease. Most of the parameters that I report to the client will be in numbers and if I am dealing with a large livestock population, I have to further statistically analyse those numbers and explain to the farmer their meaning to her herd, the farm’s management and profitability.

I know most farmers are parents and they have to deal with children saying that they are not good at mathematics. Let all your children know mathematics is a compulsory subject in primary and high school because it is a tool that one will need throughout their life.

The earlier one accepts the subject, the better they will be prepared to handle future life challenges regardless of their choice of career or occupation.

Since I left full-time university teaching in 1997, I have always found myself teaching veterinary students attached to me for internship, giving guest and part-time lectures, training farmers and animal keepers and many other people, who would benefit from my multisectoral competences.

I was motivated to write this article by a situation I have had in my practice for the past about six months. I have had this lady, 33, who has a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees from Russia. She graduated last year with a PhD in veterinary microbiology but she is still looking for a job in Kenya without success.

Joyce came to my practice in December last year and asked if I could assist her prepare for registration as a veterinary surgeon by the Kenya Veterinary Board (KVB). I agreed in line with our policy to mentor young veterinary professionals.

I put her on a crash course in veterinary practice in Kenya focusing on clinical services, veterinary governance and disease control. It also included livestock production, agribusiness and veterinary business management.

She sat her KVB examinations in February this year, passed and was registered. Incidentally, Joyce is still at my practice trying to navigate the elusive job market.

When I looked at Joyce’s papers, I was impressed by the contribution she could make to unravelling one of the viral diseases that afflict our cattle.

The disease is called bovine leukosis that causes viral cancer. We still do not know the extent to which the disease exists in our country. However, the illness has been diagnosed in Kenyan cattle.

In her doctoral studies, Joyce did some high-level research in diagnosis of the disease in cattle in Russia. She developed a superior diagnostic kit that is highly effective in diagnosing infected cattle. The kits existing before her work could not detect infection in a large number of cases.

Joyce has patented her diagnostic kit in Russia under her sponsoring university and published seven papers on the work.

Certainly, her great potential portends well for Kenya’s veterinary and medical research since her work transcends both human and veterinary medicine. She could do lots of training to our scientists in disease diagnosis and vaccine development.

The young scientist has deposited her applications with almost all the relevant institutions, but there has been a recurring response — either there is no vacancy or she should accept an unpaid internship position.

Now, the question is, “How does someone who has been at university studying and researching for nine years become an intern with no pay?” Are we a serious nation?

Kenya is estimated to have 12,000 PhD graduates in various disciplines and is said to require many more. Women only comprise a fraction of these enviable academic achievers.

Vision 2030, the national gold standard for socio-economic development by the year 2030, envisions that Kenya’s future as a prosperous internationally competitive nation will depend on university education to build a knowledge-based economy.

This national vision is great and achievable but only if we give our graduates at all levels the opportunity to put their education to relevant work soon after their graduation. Joyce’s situation afflicts graduates at all levels. The first degree ones are most affected because of their large numbers.

I reiterate that if we could deploy the less than a million university graduates to different and appropriate fields of work, they would crunch numbers and train those without university education. This would in turn build a highly effective workforce and a more socio-economically productive population.

We complain of brain drain when our educated leave the country but certainly people like Joyce have no choice if they get an opportunity.

The next thing we would hear is Kenya spending lots of money to buy medicines and diagnostic kits developed by our very own in a foreign country.

I believe that brains leaving the country are not brains drained. They are only reassigned to another segment of the human population and the benefits do get back to us albeit a lot of times at steep cost.

The real and worst form of brain drain occurs when a university graduate builds a livelihood in hawking, doing menial jobs or drowns in desperation.

In all these situations, the highly potential person may never get a real opportunity to crunch numbers, train others

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