A Determined Bio-Medical Scientist

My Story

Professor Yalemtsehay Mekonnen

I am a bio-medical scientist, a Professor of cell and human physiology and Head of the Gender Office of the College of Natural and Computational Sciences (CNCS), Addis Ababa University. I obtained my BSc degree in Biology in 1978 and later joined the first graduate programme and gained an M.Sc. degree in Biology in 1980, among the first batch of graduates in the field, and the first woman in the country.

I started my academic career as a lecturer teaching different courses. In 1988 I left for the University of Heidelberg in Germany to do my PhD in Human Physiology, with a special focus in the area of endocrinology (the biology of hormones). Upon completing my PhD, I came back and continued serving the Department of Biology at the rank of Assistant Professor from 1992 until 1999. I was then promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in 1999 and besides my teaching and research engagement I also served as the Head of the Department of Biology from 1993 to 1995 and as the Director of the Aklilu Lemma Institute of Pathobiology from February 2003 to October 2007. I am a mother of two and a grandmother of two grandchildren.

“As the saying goes success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. This taught me that life is not always a straight-line and that challenges are the way to move forward in life as it would have been very boring otherwise.”

I was born in Assela and at the time my father was a police officer so he was stationed there. Though I was born in Assela, I grew up in different parts of Ethiopia because my father was supposed to move from one place to another given the norm in the military or police departments. I went to an elementary school by then called Etege Menen in Dessie, partly in Finote Selam (Gojjam) and in Assfawossen School in Addis Ababa. This gave me an opportunity to extract different cultures and way of life from different parts of Ethiopia. I finished my high school in Dagmawi Menelik Secondary School in Addis Ababa. My childhood was luckily very fascinating in terms of having parents who were able to provide me the basics because for human growth and development. It is not only food and shelter that are key but also support, love and good family atmosphere. Growing up, libraries were rare and my friend’s father signed up for my friend and I to access the British Council library as my father was not around most of the time. We borrowed books every other week that were mostly British literature authored by writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I really enjoyed my childhood and absolutely no regrets as I loved my friends, my neighbors and the school environment. The childhood factor that contributed a lot to who I am today was that of a supportive and encouraging family. The words that my father usually had on the tip of his tongue to me and all my siblings were “you can do it!” You are truly capable! You are going to accomplish it for sure! You are going to excel.” This was a great ingredient injected in my blood to motivate my soul in everything I do. Ofcourse as part of the human element there are individual differences in pursuing goals, but I always tried to pursue the best in whatever that comes to my table which is an added value and a cumulative result to my success today.

Passion in my view is to do the best you can in whatever position you are in. Since childhood I used to do things only that feel comfortable to my soul and the biggest one was knowledge; knowledge about mathematics, the universe, science, nature and so on, therefore as a young girl I was confused which one to choose to pursue my education further, because everything seemed equally fascinating. However, as I grew up, I started to focus on one because I understood that I cannot be a master of all.

What I dream for my community is at least to have the basics like shelter, food, health coverage and so on. I want to see a society where everybody is content with what she/he is doing, being respected and being listened to than just dreaming to be rich in materials. This is crucial. I am not saying being rich is harmful but the question should be how can one utilize that resource one has at stake. I believe that loving oneself is important to love and take care of others, like oneself. I want a society that uses the resources available and makes the best out of it once the basics are fulfilled. The three corner stones of success I shared at a recent conference held in Mekelle University, Ethiopia were; passion, hard work and do not give up/perseverance. The terminal PhD for me is not just the last terminal degree given to us but it also felt like giving meaning for passion (P), hard work (h) and don’t give up (D). This is what I want to share to every youth as I want to see a purpose- driven generation and my profession is helping me to contribute in this regard. As long as I can be of benefit to others, I believe creating a generation that thinks outside of the box will be my contribution to the dream I have for my community.

“As the saying goes success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. This taught me that life is not always a straight-line and that challenges are the way to move forward in life as it would have been very boring otherwise.”

I feel very proud when I think of the number and quality of students I have created in the past three decades of service especially I feel satisfied when I see the women who have reached to the PhD level and more. I feel so fulfilled when ever I see my students serving their country and even in other part of the world. The other biggest triumph I am proud of is the most challenging decision I made to go abroad and do my PhD while I had to leave my kids with their father. It is not the fact that I did my PhD per se, but passing through those challenges I was supposed to go through leaving my family alone even though my husband and parents were supportive. This was a very tough decision. But the PhD served me as the stepping stone for the academic recognitions I received today. Moreover, my contribution to the community and my organization is as I mentioned earlier producing students at first degree, second and PhD level. On top of that, after three years of my return from Germany, I went to the southern part of Ethiopia and started doing research on medicinal plants especially on Moringa Stenopetala (shiferaw/Alekko Shekatta). This research work has also served as a stepping stone to another mega project which I am part of right now that is funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology. My other contribution towards the organization is that I took responsibilities as committee member, heading and directorship positions in the past and currently I am the head of the Gender Office of the CNCS where we give advice to students and organize different forums like reproductive health, assertiveness trainings and so on.

I have received more than ten awards from different institutions like that of the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Regional Scientific Awards for Women in January 2016; Grant for Research Group Linkage of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with the University of Hohenheim, Germany in 2014; a gold Medal award by Addis Ababa University in 2009, and Certificate of recognition by the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), to mention but a few.

I have also volunteered and appointed in my professional capacity in different institutions some of which are:

  • Ambassador Scientist for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany
  • Board President at the Society of Ethiopian Women in Science & Technology
  • Board member of Addis Ababa Science & Technology University
  • Treasurer and board member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences
  • President of the Biological Society of Ethiopia
  • An advisory board member of the Armeur Hansen Research Institute, and
  • Chairperson of the National Codex Committee of Ethiopia

To-date I have published over 100 scientific papers in reputable journals and my research works are in the areas of:

  • Plants of medicinal and nutritional value: Bioassay-guided fractionations, in vivo and in vitro physiological tests of useful plant extracts, and medicinal test systems for activity of plant-based extracts
  • Assessment of health hazards to humans, animals and the environment (E.g. Due to chemical pesticides and other contaminants),
  • Advocacy and collaborative work for the promotion of safe and sustainable use of natural resources

When I think of what enables a woman to thrive in this world of men, I say many things but it is easier said than done. However, my advice is for women to keep trying persistently and not give up. Show that you can by producing what you can. I am not saying there is no challenge because without it there is no success too. I believe women not only here but all over the world face double and triple-fold challenges due to societal, cultural and other baggages. Therefore, first a woman has to stand and feel comfortable in her own feet/skin and then when facing challenges she should take a wise decision. A woman should avoid dependency at any level, which does not mean she doesn’t have to request for support. What I mean is she needs to thrive and die trying so that she knows the thickness of her skin. That is why I wanted to lead the gender office so that I guide the girls, especially those who come from the country side so they can cope up with the new environment they are in and align their future in the right direction. My door is wide-open for mentorship and that is what I do on a daily basis including my off days.

My message to the readers here is that we all are here as human beings for a certain purpose that we can fulfill in whatever establishment (small or big) or life path we are. Our contribution might feel like a drop in an ocean, but regardless if we do what we do the best way possible, the world would be a sparkling diamond. To do this though, first of all try to contribute to the development of yourself just like as in the air transport they warn you to help yourself before you help others in case of emergency. This is not just to say, but unless you are knowledgeable and skilled in one field or another, you burden yourself, leave alone making a difference at nationally or globally. Then be humble for every success and be patient for every barricade because achievement is not an easy path, rather a road filled with challenges, ups and downs. Otherwise as I said earlier, life would be too boring to keep it going. So, my final word, remember my PHD (have PASSION in life, HARDWORK pays back and DON’T GIVE UP). It might again seem like it’s easier said than done, but dream big and trust me life is worth trying until the last breath. Do we have any other choice? I do not think so.

What do they think/say about Professor Yalemtsehay?

Her students in Bio-Medical Science and colleagues, said that Prof. Yalem (as they lovingly call her) is a very kind person who is not just like a staff member or a teacher, but is also a mother figure. She is considered a very diplomatic person and supportive to whoever knocks her door regardless of the department she works in. They added she uses her position for the benefit of others and her community in a way of continuous mentorship and coaching. Encouraging and supporting her students and other staff members to be effective in their work and life is always her priority. Her colleague mentioned the fact that Enat Bank has named one of the branches after her shows her triumph as the first female professor so that encourages other women to follow suit.

Dr. Hassan Mamo (PhD) a bio-medical scientist, a former student and close friend described Professor Yalemtsehay as a great scientist in her area of specialization who served her country for over three decades. Her excellence is not in her profession, but also in social interaction. Most of her research outputs are applicable in real world which helps directly and indirectly to the development of the country. Her involvement in the gender office, he said is immensely helping other teachers in coaching their female students at both graduate and undergraduate level which has direct impact in creating an empowered and able generation. Dr. Hassan also emphasized that she does not limit herself in this university but also shares her experiences to other universities as well. She even goes and consults farmers in the rural area as to what pesticides to use for a certain grain.