As the youngest of 25 children, Germaine could have easily blended in by doing what was expected of girls in her culture. Instead, she chose a path few girls had travelled.
“My father had six wives,” she revealed, “and my mother was the last.” It was in the Republic of Cameroon, and polygamy is still common in parts of Africa. What was unusual was Germaine’s determination.
At 7, she was being educated by her mother when she asked an important question:
“I asked my mother, ‘Why don’t you speak French? Why didn’t you go to school?’” she recalled. “And my mother said, ‘In my period, women did not go to school.’”
“And I said to my mother, ‘I will do it for you.’
“This is my first challenge.”
The primary school was six kilometers away, and she would walk the distance each day.
Secondary school was too far to walk, so she was educated by her older brothers, who gave himself the nickname “Long Pencil.”
After secondary school, it was time to get married. After all, that’s what young women did when they finished their education. And for Germaine, there were many choices: about 10 men proposed to her, she revealed. But it would be in vain.
Germaine was determined to go to college. Fortunately, one of her sisters had married an engineer, who shared her passion for education. “He believed in my dream and decided to pay my university,” she said.
But most of the professors she encountered did not believe in her dream. That became clear when she finished her undergraduate studies and looked to pursue a master’s degree.
“There were no women teachers in the department of physics at my university,” she said. “And all the teachers refused to work with girls.”
“It’s normal in our environment,” she added, explaining that teachers assumed she would end up getting married and having children, which would prevent her from working.
But there was one professor, Prof. TC Kofane, who believed in her and became her supervisor. He gave her a topic that would determine the course of her career: friction and nanotechnology.
At the time, she did not plan to get married; she was married to her studies.
But while she was in school, her family could no longer pay the tuition, so she changed course. She enrolled in a 2-year teachers’ college to become a secondary school teacher: she would then use her salary to finance her PhD.
“My supervisor did not believe me,” she said, “because every student who went before me didn’t finish their PhD.”
While studying at the teacher’s college, she met a fellow student, Dr. CV Aloyem Kaze, who would become her husband. Soon they started a family.
But that didn’t deter her from pursuing her scientific career. For seven years, she used her salary as a science teacher to pay for her PhD studies. “I was the first to work and finish my PhD,” she said. “And now this is an example for many students.”
And after she finished her PhD, she encouraged her husband to pursue his.
Gaining international recognition
Now Dr. Germaine Djuidje Kenmoe is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Yaoundé 1 in Cameroon, where she is working on reducing friction on material surfaces. Her research on the mechanics of friction-and-wear processes on the molecular level has the potential to reduce the cost of energy and material losses caused by wear and can result in greater energy efficiency. Her primary goal is to make it possible to switch friction on and off in the near future, just as we can flip light switches on and off.
Recently, she was recognized with the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Austin, Texas. And since then, she accepted another prestigious award, becoming a Fulbright research scholar.
“When you have a scientific job as a woman … you look like a diva”
Germaine also uses her position to empower young women in physics through mentoring and research supervision.
So what does she advise women intent on pursuing a research career?
“My best advice is that the first responsibility of a woman is to have a job,” she said. “When you have a scientific job as a woman, you have the visibility in society – you look like a diva.”
Ultimately, she said, it’s about freedom. You do not have to depend on a husband, or be at the whim of those who do not believe in you.
“When we are students, the boys can say, ‘What are you doing here? Go at home and get married. … I am here to prepare our future, so you don’t need to be here.’
“Now, I am free,” she said. “I can do my research, I can make a collaboration with who I want. …
“When you have a job, you’re free.”
Watch a video about the winners
This story is part of our series on the winners of the 2018 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.
About the OSWD-Elsevier Foundation Awards
The OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World recognize the scientific and career achievements of researchers from across five regions: Latin America & the Caribbean, the Arab region, Africa, Asia & the Pacific. Each year, one winner from each region presents at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The awards are collaboration between the a collaboration between the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and the Elsevier Foundation. They are awarded annually on a rotating basis among the disciplines of Biological Sciences, Engineering Sciences and Physical Sciences.
A call for nominations for the 2019 awards in the biological sciences will be announced in July and will close in mid-September. Find out more.