From a dream of becoming a Medical Doctor to a Civil Engineer – the Career Journey of Jennifer Isoke

Interview by Isaiah Esipisu

Jennifer Brenda Isoke is a Ugandan female Civil Engineer with a purpose. Besides being a public servant, Isoke has spent invaluable amount of time in different universities since 2003, preparing and delivering lecture presentations to students pursuing Construction Technology, Concrete Technology and Mechanical Plant.

She has lectured at the Uganda Technical College Kichwamba, at the Department of Water Engineering, and at Ndejje University College. To date, she is a part time lecturer at the Uganda Christian University Mukono, and she also works at the Uganda Technical College Elgon as a senior lecturer.

Jennifer Brenda Isoke (photo courtesy of: J B Isoke)

Besides her dedication to imparting of knowledge to upcoming civil engineers, she is a public servant working at the Uganda Business and Technical Examinations Board, which is a government Agency under the Ministry of Education Responsible for the national assessment of tertiary institutions in Uganda.

Given her vast knowledge and experience, Isoke has been part of the UPGro team of researchers under the T-Group. As a result, she has made a number of presentations in major conferences not limited to a presentation at the plenary session at the 2019 UMI conference, which was done in the presence of former South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki.

UPGro Knowledge Broker team caught up with her, to find out what drives her enthusiasm.

[main photo: Jennifer Isoke sharing a copy of the UPGro research with residents of Bwaise, Kampala; Photo courtesy of J B Isoke]

IE: What motivated you to pursue civil engineering, a field mostly dominated by men especially in Africa?

JBI: The background to my civil engineering career was inspired by interest to pursue science studies as a high school students. Initially I had aspired to be a medical doctor but my performance at the end of senior 4 or what we would refer to O’ level education was poor, while that in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics was fairly good at the time. I decided to pursue these three subjects at my advanced level. In my first attempt I did not perform well and tried a second time. I later improved with two principle passes that enabled me join the only polytechnic in the country to pursue a diploma in civil engineering.

I had been inspired and encouraged by my parents and a relative who supported in getting a vacancy in the training institution because she had seen the potential in me. Initially I was not a first class performer but along the way through training exposure like industrial training I got fascinated by construction industry and in the processes I developed the zeal and aspiration to become a graduate and trained engineer.

Though it was a long journey to attain my Bachelor’s degree, since I did not go directly to the university at the time, I appreciate it was worthwhile because of the hands on training and exposure I got. The exposure helped me appreciate the different engineering specialisations of building, roads, water, electrical, mechanical and because of my participation in the water sector, I developed an interest to pursue water studies.

This also inspired me to pursue a master’s degree which also was a struggle but eventually attained after winning a NUFFIC Scholarship to study at UNESCO-IHE in 2010 (now IHE-Delft).

IE: What is the main relationship between civil engineering and groundwater?

JBI: Civil engineering has many branches that is buildings, roads, water, railways and bridges. When you consider the water engineering, this has a number of components like hydraulic structures, hydrology, whereby hydrology covers things like the hydrological cycle which elaborates issues like water sources and water formation, under which groundwater falls as a water source. The hydraulic structures are engineering structures constructed to direct the flow of water or its storage as a resource and in the case of groundwater this could exist in form of spring water sources or deep boreholes, aquifers from which water is accessed for the different purposes which is the basis for the research I am currently undertaking in the T Group project.

IE: How did you get involved with UPGro?

JBI: I got involved in UPGro through the UNESCO-IHE network of my former Professor MeinePeiter van Dijk, during my master’s studies, who was very supportive in participating in other previous research projects under UNESCO-IHE. He introduced me to the overall T Group project leader Associate Professor Jan Willem Foppen. Because of my specialisation in water services management and related previous research projects, that is how I got involved in UPGro.

IE: What was the T-Group research in Uganda all about?

JBI: The T-Group research was about testing the Transition Management concept in the management of groundwater access in Kampala’s informal urban settlements. This is a concept that has been discovered in research to attempt solving complex problems related to access to services like water, sanitation, transport to mention but a few. It involves analysis of systems using interdisciplinary approach of the scientific, governance, social economic and environment considerations that affect such related systems.

IE: What were the major findings under the T-Group research?

JBI: Some of the findings show access to water continues to be a perceived challenge for the urban poor thus leading to high dependence on groundwater. The water was found to be of poor quality biologically though with relatively minimum chemical contamination. There are a number of governance related issues that hinder the access to safe water in the informal settlements of Kampala.

IE. What lessons did you learn based on your interaction with UPGro?

JBI: Main lessons learnt with my interaction with UPGro, is the importance of collaboration and use of a bottom up approach in trying to solve challenges. Research feedback is very important to communities to enable them appreciate the importance of research.

With respect to the research being undertaken that is the transition management approach it may require more time to realise the impact to testing this approach, especially when your consider the governance perspective.

Given the duration of this research project, there will be need to follow up on some of the aspects of the TM process for example monitoring its impact after the project is finally closed in May in terms of the sustainability of the processes started.

IE: How is your engagement with UPGro contribute to your lectures at different universities?

JBI: It has helped me in such a way that what I had been reading as theoretical concepts I have been able to appreciate in reality and appreciate more the complexity of issues which may not be solved by only single approaches but the need to use multiple concepts to be able to solve challenges. This is very applicable when reviewing graduate students research studies.

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