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Becoming a Papal awardee: Professor Noble Banadda’s story

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Professor Noble Ephraim Banadda grew up dreaming of becoming a medical doctor like some of the close relatives he grew up admiring. Born in May 1975, his early childhood was spent around doctors of the Mulago National Referral hospital in Kampala (Uganda). He vividly remembers afternoons spent in the doctors’ cafeteria surrounded by doctors in pristine white lab coats, discussing difficult cases of the day around a white table while taking tea from white teacups.

The young Noble admired these intelligent folks and wanted to be like them. This attraction towards medicine was cemented by his cousins and brothers who later studied human and animal medicine.

During his mid-teens, in the 1980s, however, Noble decided he was not cut out for the field of medicine after all. The allure of prestige associated with being a doctor was surpassed by the horrendous scene of HIV/AIDS patients he now saw at the hospital. HIV/AIDS was a new disease then and patients experienced dire symptoms and stigma. It did not help matters that he feared the sight of blood. That marked the end of his medical dream.

Starting his career

Even though Noble now knew he did not want to be a medical doctor, his general interest in the sciences did not wane. His passion shifted to engineering and for his first degree he applied to join Makerere University from Kyambogo College School where he had completed his high school education studying Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. He eventually joined Sokoine University in Tanzania as an exchange student for a Bachelor’s Degree in Food Science and Technology. At the time (1994), all engineering courses and practicals were conducted at University of Dar-es-Salaam so he spent time in both universities. Studying in Tanzania also helped him fulfill his ambition of travelling at an early age and gaining exposure to the world.

For his master’s and PhD degrees, he attended the prestigious Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, a university established in 1425 and colored with a rich scholarly and theological history including training philosophers that later became Popes. Noble was the first black student to be admitted to study a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the university. Upon completion of his studies, he was offered a job at BASF, one of the biggest chemical engineering companies in the world, but he turned it down to return home to Uganda even though he had no job there. Uganda was home and he loved his country. In 2007, Noble undertook post-doctoral training in chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA.

Back in Uganda, finding a job was not easy for him, for although he had impressive academic credentials, he lacked work experience. He eventually got a job at Makerere University through one of his former lecturers at Sokoine University of Agriculture who knew the then-head of Department of Food Science and Technology, H.E. Professor Joyce Kikafunda, now Uganda’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Noble started out as a part-time lecturer at Makerere University’s Department of Food Science and Technology on 1 June 2006, and was only confirmed a full-time lecturer in 2012 when the college system was instituted and he was subsequently elected head of the newly created Department of Agricultural and Bio-systems Engineering. In the same year, he was fast tracked to the position of Professor at just the age of 37. In 2016, he was also appointed a visiting Professor at Iowa State University in the USA.

Among the many feathers in his cap, Noble is a Next Einstein Fellow, fellow of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences, Co-chair of the Uganda National Young Academy, registered Engineer with the Institute of Engineers Tanzania, alumnus of the Global Young Academy, registered member of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, member of the Malabo Panel of Experts, and member of Makerere University Senate.

Receiving the Pius XI Medal from Pope Francis

How he came to be selected to receive the Pius XI medal, Noble has no clue. The selection process is a well-kept secret, but is done by a team from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, headquartered in the Vatican City. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is one of the oldest academies in the world and is comprised of strictly 80 members. Membership is for life.

Award of the medal was done by Pope Francis himself during a meeting held in the Papal wing at The Vatican on 12 November 2018. For Noble, meeting the Pope was an unforgettable moment. He described it as, “an experience I had never had before and perhaps never will again”. Noble was awarded for his outstanding scientific research and publication, but was himself amazed at the caliber of researchers at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He aspires to one day join the prestigious academy whose alumni include Galileo Galilei and a number Nobel Prize winners in the fields of medicine, physics, space engineering, mathematics and stem biology.

Research profile

With 104 peer reviewed journal publications in 2017 alone, Noble is competitively one of the top ranked researchers at Makerere University where he is still serving. His research profile includes research awards from RUFORUM which he first won in 2011 through the RUFORUM Competitive Graduate Research Scheme. His research was to investigate contamination risks associated with wrapping indigenous foods in plastic bags during cooking. In 2015, he won a second grant to carry out research on producing ethanol from low cost agricultural biomass. Outside RUFORUM funding, Noble has engaged in other researches that have resulted in innovations such as the Makerere University MV Mulimi a multi-purpose farmer’s tractor capable of threshing maize, pumping water for irrigation, charging phones, hauling agricultural produce up to one tonne, and ploughing fields; a new technology of making diesel from heavy plastics; an organic pesticide from agricultural waste; and a low cost solar-powered Irrigation pump.

Ingredients for Success

Noble accredits RUFORUM for having contributed significantly to his research profile acknowledging that sometimes as a scientist, one can have great research ideas, but miss out on funding because of poorly written proposals, non-compliant budgets, or failure to secure partnerships. He is grateful to RUFORUM for stepping in to fill this role through organizing scientific writing workshops, brokering partnerships and other support.

His first interaction with RUFORUM was when he first applied for a grant and he has never looked back. One of the greatest benefits he considers from this engagement is international exposure which he would like to see RUFORUM continue to do through activities like mobility grants, exchange programmes and internationalization of research teams. He also enjoys working with Prof Adipala whose tenacity and dynamism he admires. “The first time we met, we hit it off immediately at a personal level. I like working with people who are tenacious and dynamic. Prof Adipala is that and more.”

Although he has won many research awards over the years, Noble is quick to point out that this comes neither easily nor by accident. Three key ingredients stand out for him for one to succeed as a researcher: working with winners, mentorship, and internationalization. He is particularly passionate about internationalization of one’s education and networks and encourages researchers to seek international exposure. “Even it is a 2-day training and there is no per diem for participation, attend, for you will not return the same.” He adds that for young researchers who want to follow in his footsteps, they should be focused, exercise self-discipline and start young, noting that the average age of achievers is now below 30 years.

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