How I emerged Manchester varsity Student of the Year – Nigerian

An indigene of Shuwa town, Madagali Local Government Area of Adamawa State, Dr Halima Ali-Shuwa, who was named the Student of the Year at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, tells GODFREY GEORGE the story behind the inspiring achievement

You were reportedly named Student of the Year at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. Can you confirm this?

Yes, it is true.

Did you see it coming and how does this achievement make you feel?

I definitely did not see that coming. I mean, how could I, in my wildest dream, think that I, Halima Shuwa, would be awarded this prestigious award? For one to get the award, first, one would have to be nominated by one’s Principal Investigator or supervisor. The supervisor would have to write a two-page convincing statement to show the panel and spectators that one deserves this award. They’d have to defend the research you did and show how exceptional it is to be qualified to get that award. The nominator will have to get five different professors in that field or division to be able to back those claims. These professors will also write a convincing statement to further the nomination. This means these professors must have known one personally and must have worked with one at some point in the programme to be able to say one was deserving of the award.

So, my name was forwarded to the division level where I was to compete with members from other teams. At the division level, they would then decide who would go to represent the division or faculty at the school level. I was named as Best Student, Faculty of Biology and Health Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, Department of Respiration, Immunity and Infectious Diseases for the university. It automatically meant I would have to compete with all other nominees from other divisions and departments. I managed to scale through all the rigorous arrangements. How could I imagine that I would be the one to be chosen by the entire University of Manchester for the award of Best Student, scaling through all those obstacles? It is amazing.

What part of Nigeria are you from?

I am an indigene of Shuwa town, Madagali Local Government Area of Adamawa State.

Tell us about your family background and the kind of upbringing you had?

My family was not wealthy but we were comfortable. My dad was able to care for us despite the fact that we were a really large family. My dad has 30 kids. You can imagine what it would have been like growing up in such a family but with the grace and mercy of Allah, I was able to get everything I needed to survive.

All of us went to good schools and my father made sure we had everything we needed. I started thinking of going abroad to study after I finished the national youth service. My dream was to get a scholarship to take me out of Nigeria. I strongly felt that the plans I had in my mind would not be achieved if I remained in Nigeria. I wanted to do world-class quality research, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford such research in Nigeria. Again, Nigeria does not have the facilities. So, I realised that I needed an international scholarship, so I applied for over 100 scholarships. Many came with negative outcomes but I kept trying, believing that I would eventually get something.

I wasn’t able to secure any scholarship for my MSc, so I did it at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. Immediately after that, I applied for a PhD scholarship. I also applied to do the PhD locally in case the scholarship did not come. I had even started my PhD at the Bayero University, Kano before I got the UK scholarship through the Petroleum Technology Development Fund. I kept waiting for something bad to happen even after the list was released. It was until I stepped foot in the UK that I believed that it was really happening.

As a child, people used to tell me that I was too ambitious because I always aimed to be at the top. I had big dreams but I didn’t really believe that any of those dreams would come to reality. I didn’t believe I would ever leave the shores of Nigeria and go to the United Kingdom to study. I knew I had very big dreams but I honestly still saw them as what they were – just dreams. But I prayed and worked really hard to get to where I am now.

Can you describe how you felt the moment you were announced as Manchester University Student of the Year?

In April 2022, I went to collect an award for the Best PhD student for my school level before getting a separate email that I won the Distinguished Achievement Medal for the entire university. The first was a trailblazer for me, and when I held the plaque in my hands, I couldn’t believe it. What! I really don’t know how to describe what I felt that day in words. It is overwhelming. I cried my heart out because I did not think I was good enough to win that award in the entire school.

When my supervisor told me she was nominating me some weeks before, I thought she was just trying to make me feel good about myself. I didn’t give it a second thought. They (supervisors) have always told me that I did my work amazingly but I just don’t know why I didn’t believe them. I felt the imposter syndrome, which did not allow me to enjoy the feeling. I had already left my university at that time and joined GSK. So, when I got the notification email, I had to send it to my supervisor to confirm that I was not being pranked by the university. But she responded, saying that it was not a prank, because she got the same email, stating that I won.

I was with my husband at the time and the way I shouted and cried was just overwhelming. When the email from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester got to me and stated that I was chosen by the panel as the best in the whole of Manchester, my heart skipped a bit. I almost had a heart attack. I was ecstatic and over the moon!

What kind of prize were you given as the University of Manchester Student of the Year?

I got a plaque and the university organised a formal dinner party for all the awardees on my behalf. I got a pure gold medal. Somebody gave me a diamond necklace and a gold bracelet. I got a number of things; I cannot even count them all.

Have you always been an ‘A’ student?

I think I have always been an ‘A’ student. I remember that in my primary and secondary schools I was on scholarship because I was always the overall best student in my set almost every year. My dad only paid my school fees about three of four times throughout my secondary school.

What attracted you to Medical Laboratory Science that you studied?

The dream of many in the medical sciences is to become a medical doctor. It was a dream for me as well and my dad always wanted me to become a doctor too. When it was time for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, I chose Medicine and Surgery.

When the admission came out, I didn’t get MBBS. Instead, I got Medical Laboratory Science. When I went to check the list and saw MLS, I kept asking people, “What in the world is MLS?” I didn’t know what MLS was but I decided to give it a try. I planned that I would change to MBBS in year two. My dad’s happiness was also a factor so I kept eyeing the MBBS to make him happy. At the end of year one, I bought a Change of Course Form, filled it and took to my dad to sign. He was with a visitor when I got to him. He discussed the issue with his visitor, who somehow convinced him not to let me change my course, that it might be the best for me. There and then, my dad tore the form. Looking at it now, that was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

Northern part of Nigeria is regarded as educationally backward or disadvantaged. How were you able to rise above the norm?

It is a norm that some women in the North are not allowed to go to school. The biggest credit would go to my family. They are still my biggest supporters. They supported me in every way. My dad didn’t go to secondary school but he can read and write. So, he usually tells us that no matter what happens, he would make sure none of his kids lacks western education. With that mindset, I was raised. In my family, I am the first person to reach this level of education although most of my siblings have first degree. I was the first in my family to finish undergraduate studies without being married and there were a lot of pressure from people. Some were insulting me to my face, saying I didn’t want to ‘move on’ with my life. I would always laugh at them because there was no point in explaining to people the plans I had. Even some family members were trying to challenge my decision not to get married. But I was so lucky to have the support of my dad and my eldest brother.

What was your experience when you stepped foot in the UK?

I remembered when I first came to the UK, after the excitement had settled in, I knew it was going to be challenging. The weather was a big problem. It was too cold. I still struggle during winter, though I am getting used to it a bit. My apartment was unbelievably tiny compared to my room in Nigeria for the amount of money I was paying as monthly rent. I even shared accommodation with someone for three months before I got a whole apartment for myself. When I started to go to school, I was the only black in an all-white, unfriendly neighbourhood. I was used to saying hello to everybody but that is not the same in the UK. Initially, I thought it was racism but I later got to find out that everybody minds their business here in the UK. I was depressed initially because I was alone for the better part of the winter when I first came. I missed my family terribly but I coped somehow.

What differences did you notice in the Nigerian and UK educational systems?

The differences are massive. You just cannot compare the two systems. Students here (in the UK) are treated as kings and queens. The schools do a lot of things to accommodate the needs of students. The lecturers and lectures are different. What the teacher says in Nigeria is absolute but this is not so in the UK. You can challenge your lecturer and nothing will happen.

What was the focus of your PhD research?

My initial research was on the partial distribution of B-Cells. It was on the cellular aspects of immunology. I was researching on the adaptive immune responses of B-Cells in a disease called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. COPD is the third leading cause of mortality in the developed world. It is usually caused by cigarette smoking (in the developed world) and firewood smoke (in developing countries). I was doing that for a year and a half and COVID-19 struck. The school was closed for six months, and immediately after we came back, I volunteered to research B and T cells in COVID-19 patients. I followed the patients longitudinally. I got the samples every day and followed them for six months. So, in summary, my PhD research was on B and T cells in chronic and acute lung diseases.

Did you face any challenges in the course of the research?

The initial difficulty I had was that B-cells are understudied cells. There are not many things known about them in COPD, and my supervisor was not a B-cell expert, although she had expert knowledge in immunology. I didn’t really have the help I needed. I had to think and come up with my own methods to handle the research. This was one thing that amazed my supervisors because I always came up with innovative ways to solve my problems.

How did you balance your research work in the UK with family life?

I don’t have kids yet. I am hoping that one day I would have kids and become a mother. It was difficult at first but I told myself that it was temporary. That motivated me. PhD can be very isolating but I just had to manage. I felt like giving up a lot of times. I had swollen legs from standing or sitting too much working on the samples. It was daunting but it was doable.

How supportive was your husband in all of this?

I am married to the most supportive husband. I call him my best friend. He is simply the best. He is the best thing that happened in my life. Without him, I don’t think I would have been where I am now.

Do you plan to stay back in the UK or return to Nigeria?

I honestly don’t have the ambition to stay in the UK for long. I have plans to come back to Nigeria to help build the nation, joining the research team. I want to establish a world-class research facility soon, which would be able to give researchers the opportunity to do their research. But I need to get experience in the developed world so I can attract investors to Nigeria.

How supportive was your husband in all of this?

I am married to the most supportive husband. I call him my best friend. He is simply the best. He is the best thing that happened in my life. Without him, I don’t think I would have been where I am now.

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