George William Kajjumba’s childhood in Masaka, Uganda included a daily trek for water. 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 UNLV's civil engineering program, to pursue engineering. It is the perfect field to combine his knowledge and research interests with his pursuit to find intersecting 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,” said Kajjumba. “I chose to go into engineering and academia to pass on my acquired knowledge and help communities worldwide tackle the pressing challenges of our time.”
If 2021 is any indication, Kajjumba is well on his way to doing just that. This summer he was invited to attend the prestigious 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, 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 for the 2021 Black Trailblazers in Engineering fellows program, a new initiative started by Purdue University earlier this year.
We caught up with Kajjumba to learn a little more about his path to engineering, his current work and goals for the future, and his experiences representing UNLV on a national and global stage.
What drew you to UNLV?
The faculty members, particularly my mentor Erica Marti – who’s also a former Nobel Lindau meeting participant.
Applying to graduate school is like a race, 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 different 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. Marti had perused through my proposal and responded with questions and comments. Her attention to detail and thoughtful suggestions about my research became a deciding factor in pursuing my doctoral degree at UNLV.
She also encouraged me to apply for both the Lindau and Trailblazers programs. Initially, I was unsure about applying, but I am glad that I did because they are both excellent opportunities to network with like-minded individuals.
What’s your current research focus?
My current work centers on helping bridge water scarcity and the food crisis.
Humans 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 that in mind, I began to ask: how could we treat wastewater to recover the nutrients that have been lost and find ways to incorporate them back into our food production?
Through this research, we're helping address three critical challenges: hunger, poverty, and the water crisis. I want to make sure that we can meet the UN's sustainable goals so that people can elude poverty and stay healthy.
Tell us about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and why representing UNLV was significant?
Each year, young scholars around the world get the coveted opportunity to learn from Nobel laureates as part of the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.
The meetings are traditionally held in the small German town of Lindau, and the goal is to bring researchers and laureates together to discuss the latest developments in the Nobel Prize natural science disciplines: physics, biology, chemistry, physiology, and medicine.
Having people from younger universities, like UNLV, attend a conference of this magnitude is inspiring. I hope my invitation to the meetings will stimulate students' interest and provide motivating evidence that someone they know, who chose to attend a minority-serving institution and received their education in Uganda, had the opportunity to converse with Nobel laureates.
What did you take, both personally and professionally, from participating in the Nobel Laureate Meetings?
The meetings bring together people from different geographical areas who share a common discipline of improving the environment and enhancing our understanding of the universe. Brainstorming the practical approaches to managing and delivering vaccines with the 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, George P. Smith, is what I call a "wow" moment.
The 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 encountered at any national conference or meeting. The meetings also provided a unique opportunity to educate other researchers about my work on bridging clean water scarcity and food production.
Why are programs like the Black Trailblazers in Engineering fellows important?
The fellowship program prepares promising Black scholars nearing completion of their doctoral degrees or postdoctoral appointments at American universities for a career in academia.
They do this to nurture students through their academic journey since representation for Black scholars is almost non-existent. The program is very competitive, with only 19 students selected to participate and meet with other professionals in academia. They aim to increase the number of fellows in the academic world by helping them make good connections and navigate their careers post-graduation.
What advice would you give to other minority students concerned about the lack of representation in STEM?
We all have different challenges, but I believe everyone, regardless of their color or gender, has a purpose on this planet. The question is: "When you fall, how do you get up?" My solution to anyone who might read this is to find a coach or a mentor because this person can help you navigate professional challenges. You have to find someone who perfectly fits in your journey.
When I got the five offers to join graduate school, many people gave me advice about the school I should choose. Some people said I needed to pick a top-ranked university and others questioned that thinking. 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 replied meant they would have time for you and will be there for you. Guess 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 worldwide.
I would also like to see the organization I helped start, Uzuri Health & Beauty, expand. I began the organization in 2017 with a colleague, Michael Kayemba, to re-envision how we deliver health care to local communities.
As a global society, we care a lot about our external beauty, but we don't tend to care so much when it comes to the engine inside us — our health. Our organization hopes to change that. For example, when someone comes in for a hair or nail appointment daily or weekly, we also make sure that they get a medical checkup. This way, we can help people in our communities face fewer challenges when they become sick.
Over the next decade, I wish to expand this model all over Uganda and East Africa at large.
Any final words of advice to those interested in a career in higher ed?
Pursue academia if it is your passion. You have to ask yourself, "Is this something I truly want to do?" Like any industry, you have to work aggressively. If you have passion, then this is the career for you.