I realised the key is integrating or blending my work and personal responsibilities rather than striving for work-life balance.
She is both tender and fierce. Ambitious and modest. But for a long time, Oluwadamilola (Dami) Pikuda struggled to find where she fits. Her recent journey of self-discovery helped her embrace her unique self. Today, Dami makes no apologies for who she is and what she brings to the table.
Dami is dedicated to environmental sustainability and explores various research tools to support decision-makers in using evidence-based approaches to achieve a more sustainable environment.
A PhD candidate at McGill University in Canada, Dami has authored and co-authored several research papers and received numerous prestigious awards and scholarships.
The Women for Environment 2022 fellow shares insights from her journey with Damaris Agweyu.
Dami, where is your happy place?
I'm happiest when I am helping others and when I’m working with numbers.
Yes. I loved mathematics back in high school and early university days. When I was a student, there wasn’t a problem involving numbers that I didn’t challenge myself to solve. While my classmates were spending hours preparing for math exams, I slept because it all came so easily to me.
After high school, I was hell-bent on pursuing a career that involved numbers. And I got my way. But not without a fight.
Who did you have to fight?
I'm a first-generation student in my family and was brilliant in school. Because of this, my teachers and parents decided I would pursue medicine. The school's principal was very kind and patient with me. He guided and supported me through the application process for several prestigious universities.
While waiting for that final approval to come through, I attended a career talk, and that is when it dawned on me. I was going to train to become a doctor, not because I wanted to but because everyone around me thought I should. I wept.
The thought of never doing mathematics again terrified me. I asked the admissions office if I could change my application's selected course. It was too late, they said. It would mean I had wasted an entire year because that was how long it would take to re-write the entrance exams to qualify for consideration into a mathematics-intensive course like engineering. To me, this was a small price to pay.
I made my decision and told my parents I was no longer going to study medicine. I wanted to pursue engineering. They were deeply upset. Disappointed even. My father literally disowned me. After the frustration had died down, I promised him I would one day become a doctor, just not a medical doctor.
And you kept your promise.
I kept my promise. At the same time, I had always been drawn to the community and environmental programs. My thesis at the Bachelor's level was on the environmental impact of mattresses.
For my fourth-year internship, I worked at a factory that produced mattresses. On my first day of reporting, I passed out. This scared me, but it also got me curious. What harm was the production process causing those who worked in and lived near the factory? The inspectors had overlooked something, and I started asking questions I “shouldn't” have asked.
The factory workers told me the production process took place twice or thrice a week. And that if I wanted to withstand the fumes, I needed to be high on alcohol or weed. That wasn't an option for me. I told them it was dangerous and unhealthy to work there and they needed to consider other options. My pleas fell on deaf ears. I went further, choosing to focus on this production process for my Bachelor’s degree thesis. I wanted to show the danger of the production process to human health and the environment. Sadly, my reports gathered dust on shelves. I had no choice but to finally drop the case.
I thought about getting into environmental policymaking for my Master's degree, but no one was funding this. Further, because I was a scholarship student who needed to support my younger siblings, I dropped that too. I left Nigeria for the UAE to pursue my Master's in chemical engineering. I continued to excel academically and afterwards got a fully funded scholarship to pursue my PhD.
Were you, in a sense, pushed into academia?
I was dead set on keeping my promise to my dad, so I felt compelled to ride my journey out. But before the end of my first year as a PhD student, I knew I wanted something more because I encompass many other things besides academia. I had a long list of things I wanted to do alongside my PhD, including having babies.
And having babies clashed with this world?
In my case, for sure.
At that time, I was the first female student in my research group to have children, and this came with challenges. I couldn't spend as much time in the lab as I would have liked to, and the speed at which I could pursue my research was greatly affected. Many young mothers can relate, but given the fact that I was the only one in my group, I felt isolated.
Having online meetings with my babies in sight felt like an abomination. I noticed the looks of discomfort and the snide comments that made me feel that I did not love my research enough.
Some of the pushback made me feel like a failure. Not serious. Not good enough. Like I need to explain my situation or apologise for having children, it seemed impossible to have both my research work and my children.
How did you cope?
I learned to listen to myself and design my life around what works for me. I realised the key is integrating or blending my work and personal responsibilities rather than striving for work-life balance.
COVID helped me realise that working from home is the most ideal situation for me. So, for example, I may be in the middle of a work seminar, and I'm washing dishes simultaneously. Then I'll have a 5-minute break between meetings, which allows me to do my laundry. I thrive at multitasking, but whatever I am doing must be timed correctly.
My work involves a lot of technical writing, and I discovered that my peak hours are between 4:00 am and 7:00 am. I will achieve more in one morning of writing than three days of sitting in an office from 8 am to 5 pm. Not everyone can understand this, but it’s what works for me.
I also noticed that on some days when my children come home from school, I'm super relaxed. On other days I'm tired and groggy. The researcher in me investigated this further and discovered that naps really help. After a nap shortly before my kids return from school, I am calmer around them and have the energy to play with them.
I recently found the right word to explain who I am: a multi-potentialite.
For a long time, I saw my uniqueness as a weakness, a lack of focus. But then I discovered this word and was relieved to see that there are other people out there like me. So now I have managed to integrate my family life, work life and student life, all the while keeping my well-being at the centre. If I am on a work call and one of my babies appears on the screen and someone starts to squirm, that is their problem to deal with, not mine. I am no longer ashamed of the way I operate.
What is your PhD thesis about?
I'm investigating the toxicity of micro and nano plastics. We can't see them with the naked eye, but they can take thousands of years before completely degrading. We now find them in human blood, faeces, and even breast milk. Studies have shown that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
And sad. When I started my thesis proposal, I wrote that 20% of plastic is recycled. Five years later, while writing my thesis, I learnt that this figure has gone down to 9%. Of course, the figure varies for different countries, and the recent bans on plastic bags and straws, for example, are steps in the right direction. But on the global scale, the improvement is minimal.
About fifty years ago, we were heavily reliant on leaves and paper. And then we had the problem of deforestation. So plastic was introduced as the “magic” material. It was affordable, cheap, and fancy. And now we're trying to eliminate it and go back to paper. That’s the irony of the situation.
Today, we are excited about electric vehicles as a solution for renewable energy. Fifty years from now, I am almost certain that we will be dealing with or at least talking about the problems caused by electric cars.
Is there a solution? Hope?
I don't believe in completely abandoning one option for another. Balance is key—having different options that integrate the best of both worlds. If we had integrated plastics and paper, for instance, we wouldn't be where we are today with regard to plastic pollution.
This is the scientist in me talking, and it may sound pessimistic, but hope will not make these things disappear from the environment. It's just a reality we must deal with very soberly. So decision-makers must first understand all the risks and rewards and then make informed decisions based on scientific evidence, not according to what is in vogue or popular.
A PhD took you to Canada. Do you have any plans to return home once you’re done?
This is a question I've struggled with for a while. A part of me feels shame or guilt. Like I’m a fraud when I say I'm not planning to come home immediately after my thesis.
I love Africa, and over the past five years, I've been working with African organisations remotely. I also love Canada.
I'm committed to conservation and environmental sustainability and will continue working remotely with African organisations. I'm learning to make peace with that decision because it is how I feel now. It could change in future.
How has the WE Africa journey impacted your life?
Before WE Africa, I was tired and stressed, constantly chasing the next thing and never really taking the time to smell the roses. WE Africa has taught me to say no to some things and simply enjoy the journey. I am no longer fixated on the destination.
And coming from an academic background, you are taught to prove your “intelligence” by agreeing with other “intelligent” people. The competitiveness and lack of tolerance of different views and ways of being can negatively impact one's mental health. But WE Africa has taught me that I can sit down with a group of people and come up with very different yet rich opinions.
It’s helped me understand and accept who I am—that my unique way of being and seeing things is, in fact, a strength.
This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2022 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.