Nigerians now value vets, a dog owner once wept when it died – UI prof Ajala

Prof Oluwatoyin Ajala

A consultant theriogenologist and lecturer in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Ibadan, Prof Oluwatoyin Ajala, speaks to TEMITOPE ADETUNJI about her career and family

Becoming a professor is the height of an academic career. Was this your childhood dream or at what point did it become a goal for you?

What I could remember as an Ekiti girl-child growing up in Oyo town was that I always wanted to be the best in all my endeavours and God has always been faithful in boosting my little efforts. My parents always taught me to put in my best and to please God in all that I do.  This was my mindset right from my secondary school, Federal Government Girls College, Owinni, Oyo, Oyo State. Back then at FGGC, it was common practice to have notable women invited to give us pep talks in order to encourage our young minds. One of such women who made a mark in my life then was Prof Bolanle Awe. I was so fascinated by her talk and comportment that, there and then, I made up my mind that one day I would be a professor in my chosen field, and by the grace of God, I became a professor of theriogenology in 2016. All glory to God Almighty.

What kind of family did you come from and did your family background and upbringing have any influence on your career choice as an academic? What kind of experiences shaped your childhood?

I came from a very humble background. My parents were teachers. To date, they are no-nonsense parents and disciplinarians par excellence. This really influenced my upbringing but did not affect my career choice.  My parents have no tolerance for frivolities; therefore they frowned on anything that could distract my education.

I was struggling to gain admission to study Medicine and Surgery when a verse in the Bible came to mind: “A man that takes care of his animals is wise”. Therefore, instead of wasting years writing UTME (Unified Matriculation Examination) over and over in a bid to study human medicine, which was in high demand then, I said to myself I could study Veterinary Medicine, and that was how I changed to Veterinary Medicine. I am happy for it today.

My father took so much interest in the education of his children. He would write letters to us while we were in school and expected us to reply them. He wouldn’t stop there; he would correct our letters and post them back to us. This really enhanced my writing skills. During the holidays, he would compel us to read newspapers and check meanings of uncommon words in the dictionary, while he also gave us essay topics to write. He took his time to correct such essays and made us to rewrite them. My parents always visited the school during Visiting Day, and if we were not well dressed, or were untidy, my father would scold the hell out of us and chase us back to the hostel to do the needful, before giving us whatever he brought for us from home.

My parents used to take us to several places to learn new things and as a girl-child, no to frivolity and unnecessary socials (were allowed). He always celebrates our achievements. All these shaped my childhood and moral stance as a girl and as a woman. The most glorious of all my experiences was knowing Jesus Christ early in life; this gave meaning and direction to my life.

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For how long have you been lecturing, what do you love most about your job and what will you consider as your greatest reward as a lecturer?

I have been lecturing for the past 29 years and my greatest joy and reward are to see or hear my former students talk about my impact upon their lives, that they are progressing in their careers. I also derive pleasure in mentoring young women.

Is there a career decision you made that when you look back you are always grateful for?

Yes. A career decision I once made was to sacrifice some opportunities for my family. For me, family comes first; career is nothing without family. What would it benefit me if my family is not doing fine and my career is progressing? Such sacrifice could affect our work, the number of papers published and so on, but it is worth it after all.

Did you choose some people as mentors in the course of building your career?

Yes. I did have some people I held in high esteem in my career. Notable among them was Prof. M.O. Akusu (of blessed memory). He really encouraged me during my master’s degree and in the course of my PhD. research. His words of encouragements and support really helped me in my career.

Were there moments you would describe as high and low on your journey to becoming professor?

Life is full of ups and downs, but with God we can overcome the down moments. My high moments were usually when my manuscripts got accepted and published in journals. Another notable moment was when I had the opportunity of presenting my published work at a theriogenology conference in the USA and the work was applauded, that such a high tech research could be carried out in Nigeria despite all odds. Having my manuscripts or proposals rejected was always a low moment for me. Another low moment was when I was denied my promotion on a flimsy excuse, and the greatest of high moments was when my professorship promotion was announced after waiting for years.

What informed your decision to specialise in theriogenology?

Theriogenology is a specialty in Veterinary Medicine concerned with reproduction in animals. It encompasses veterinary obstetrics and gynaecology, andrology and assisted reproductive technologies. I found the specialty most interesting and comfortable for me during my undergraduate days. I advise young ones to choose career path they love and excel in.

Is there a discovery you’ve made in the course of studying, researching and teaching theriogenology that you found quite amazing and fascinating, and you want the public to know about?

I have reported a methodology for staining vaginal exfoliated epithelial cells in bitches for staging the estrous cycle, which is being used in theriogenology clinics. I have also reported a protocol in the treatment of TVT (transmissible venereal tumour) in dogs. Improved nutrition with browse plants available and readily cultivated in our environment in right proportions and quantities can improve reproductive potential of our small ruminants. Dystocia, a major obstetrical condition in small animal veterinary practice, is on the increase in dogs in Nigeria due to indiscriminate importation and crossbreeding of dogs – this is a red alert to small animal veterinary practitioners in our resource-constrained environment.

As a professor of theriogenology, do you encounter people who try to downplay your profession by calling you animal doctor?

In the early days of my profession I felt bad but now, there is no reason for such.

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How do you respond to them?

I just try to educate them whenever occasion permits. I think people now appreciate what we do as veterinary doctors. We recently encountered a middle-aged man who cried profusely when he lost his dog at our clinic as a result of late presentation. That goes a long way to tell you that people are much aware of what we do now and they appreciate us.

Given that Nigeria is not like the western societies where animals are highly valued, will you encourage more people to study Veterinary Medicine today?

Things are changing these days; people are appreciating what we do as veterinary doctors. People are increasingly getting to know the value of their animals, especially those that have guard dogs in their homes in the face of the increasing insecurity in the country. A man once brought his guard dog that was shot by armed robbers that invaded his house to our clinic and we did all possible to save the dog.  They now know the importance of animal health. Veterinarians are employed in animal farms, such as dairy farms. Therefore, I will encourage young people to study the Veterinary Medicine.

Many think that most of the researches being carried out in Nigerian universities have no direct bearing or impact on the society. What do you say to that?

This is not true in many cases. However, what may be truer is that there is a wide gap in communication between the town and gown and this is gradually being bridged. We need the government and the private sector to partner the institutions so as to commercialise some of the inventions currently on shelf in our universities.

What more should Nigerian scientists do to make society feel their impacts?

We, as scientists, should do research not for promotion alone but to solve societal problems. Such researches need more publicity so that society will become aware of the solutions the scientists have proffered. There must be synergies between the government, the private sectors and the researchers at the universities in order to turn such innovations into useful ventures that can help mitigate the many social vices, for example the unemployment in the country. The value chain of cattle ranching is enough to employ thousands of jobless graduates in the country, for instance. The dung from cattle can be used to generate clean energy for cooking and for electricity generation; cattle can be slaughtered and processed along with the milk. There are lots of research findings available at the moment that can help the cattle value chains. For example, artificial insemination of cows with semen of improved breeds can be brought to bear to upgrade our local cows. There is a lot of training on how to improve pig business in Nigeria. With the help of the press, the awareness can be further created.

What are some of the teaching aids being used in more developed countries that you wish you had access to, to make teaching more impactful?

One of the issues raised by Academic Staff Union of Universities is inadequate funding and equipping of the public universities in Nigeria. Many things are lacking in our laboratories, like animal dummies for simulations, to enhance teaching. Most of the laboratories/clinics lack microscopes, ultrasound machines, radiography equipment and relevant technology, to mention just a few.

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Is there any ultimate legacy you are striving to achieve in your area of interest, theriogenology?

My career goal is to bring some of our indigenous breeds of animals into limelight. The local breeds have better resistance to diseases and better adaptability to our weather, so by improving on them there will be sustainable animal husbandry in the country.

What are your likes and dislikes, particularly while in the lecture theatre or laboratory?

I set guidelines and rules for my students and I like it when student comply with my instructions. They know that lateness to class is frowned on, and attendance is a prerequisite for taking exams. If you do not make 75 per cent attendance you will not sit the exam, which is a university rule. Once I enter the lecture theatre, no student is allowed to enter. I frown on indecent dressing in my class, and in the laboratory, you are not allowed without your overalls or lab coat. The class is moderately small, so one can easily spot noisemakers. I dislike students picking their calls or making calls while lecture is ongoing. I also dislike cheating during examinations, and if you are caught, that is automatic failure of the course or you are made to face disciplinary actions; so, students dare not cheat when I am invigilating.

How did you meet your husband and what was the thing that made you say yes to him rather than someone else?

I met my husband during my undergraduate days at the Ibadan Varsity Christian Fellowship, University of Ibadan. He has passion, love and fear of God. That really endeared him to me. We are compatible in many areas of life. I also prayed through and God gave me confirmations that he was the will of God for me and we would raise a godly family together to the glory of God.

Do you have children who are showing interest in medicine or lecturing?

Yes, my first child chose a course in Education (and he is about finishing his master’s). One of my children is studying Veterinary Medicine, and another one is in human medicine. None is lecturing yet.

Do you have other interests beyond veterinary medicine and lecturing?

Aside from veterinary medicine and lecturing, I am involved in women advocacy and missionary work.

How do you unwind?

I love singing hymns and travelling.

What guides your sense of fashion?

The word of God guides my sense of fashion. I dress modestly and I wear clothes that fit me and are dignifying.

As a Christian, what portion of the Bible do you like most?

I love John 3:16: “For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life;” Colossians 1:13: “Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear son;”  2 Peters1:3: “According as His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue.”

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