Biology and beyond


I first visited ILRI – International Livestock Research Institute in Kabete during the last year of my undergraduate studies in Microbiology. No, they don’t only breed cows and they do have some of the most advanced laboratories in Kenya.

If you decided to take biology for your first degree, it opens the doors to a myriad of options. Some of the options highlighted here involve the role of genetic studies in studying different ecological environments, exploring microbial culture for therapeutic purposes and improvement of crop species with emphasis on crop disease.

Meet Francesca Stomeo from south Italy, the blog’s first feature profile.

Current position

Scientist at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi.

Academic background

BSc in Biology from the University of Pavia in the North of Italy.

Advanced Studies Diploma (DEA) in Genetics and Microbial Technologies from the University of Seville (Spain).

European Marie Curie Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Biology at the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology of Seville (IRNASE), part of the Superior Council of Scientific Investigations (CSIC), in Spain.

Her PhD. project focused on the conservation of Cultural Heritage sites (prehistoric paintings) using microbiological and molecular techniques based on DNA and RNA.

All the above courses can be taken at local Kenyan universities.

Professional background

Before joining the BecA-ILRI Hub, Francesca was a post doc at the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa where she focused on the characterization of the microbial diversity, structure and function of extreme environments (such as Antarctic Dry Valleys soils, permafrost and hypoliths and the Namib Desert).

During the first three years at the BecA – ILRI Hub Francesca played a major role in the establishment and application of the Genomics platform, in Capacity Building activities and research related projects. In particular, together with national (KALRO, the UoN) and international partners (FERA, York, UK) she led the “plant virome” project, which aimed at the detection of multiple pathogens (bacteria, fungi and viruses) in maize mixed cropping systems in Kenya. The major goal of the project was to identify emerging crops diseases and associated risks to improve African sustainability and ensure food security with a special focus on the Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) and its management.

In fewer words, by keeping the staple food (maize) disease free, she was ensuring the country stays fed. Isn’t that a noble job?

Her role in the current position is to provide technical guidance and build the research capacity of scientists with a particular focus on Genomics-related research activities.

Francesca has strong experience and interest in metagenomics, microbial ecology and crop improvement and is fascinated by the microbial world. When she is not in the lab, she tries to focus on her four major passions: music, books, travel and languages.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of extra-curricular activities for a balanced scientific career, such massive roles require a well-rounded mind.

Advice to aspiring students

Francesca’s advice to young students is borrowed from Freeman Dyson’s (distinguished quantum physicist, who worked with Einstein at Princeton) answers to the following questions during an interview:
(1) Why he remained hard at work;
(2) what were his strengths and weaknesses now compared with earlier in his career; and
(3) what advice would he give to those who have been working for
(a) one year,
and (b) 30 years?

His replies were:

  1. I continue working because I agree with Sigmund Freud’s definition of mental health. To be healthy means to love and to work. Both activities are good for the soul, and one of them also helps to pay for the groceries.
  2. In my younger days my work as a scientist was deep and narrow. Now, as I grow old, my work grows broader and shallower. As a young man, I solved technical problems of interest only to a few specialists. As an old man, I write books about human affairs of interest to a broad public. In both halves of my life, I tried to make the best use of my limited abilities.
  3. (A). Advice to people at the beginning of their careers: do not imagine that you have to know everything before you can do anything. My own best work was done when I was most ignorant. Grab every opportunity to take responsibility and do things for which you are unqualified.

(b). Advice to people at the middle of their careers: do not be afraid to switch careers and try something new. As my friend the physicist Leo Szilard said (number nine in his list of Ten Commandments): “Do your work for six years; but in the seventh, go into solitude or among strangers, so that the memory of your friends does not hinder you from being what you have become.”

I think these words are gold for any career.

That said, if you want some home-made Italian food in Nairobi, I’m open to enticements to speak to Francesca on your behalf.



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