Certainly, Tonia Osadebe, the last of a family of three children, is the sort of youth that Nigeria needs at this time when a ‘Failed Suicide Bomber’ — one over-pamp-ered Abdul Mutallab — has further dipped the image of the country in the gutter. The 20-year old did not only graduate tops in her class in the Engineering Department of University of Denver, she, along with three others designed a project that will make a quadriplegic patient capable of only neck movement to have control of his immediate environment. The project provides solution to independent control of room devices, access to Internet, phones, communication with nurse station outside being user’s friendly and language independent interface. She tells TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA, how she came tops in a field dominated by men.
How do you feel studying Engineering at Denver?
Yes, it is a man’s world. We were 20 per cent females in the department and because of that, they try to pay special attention to the females; for us to catch up when it is even not necessary because I graduated tops in my class. Females bring a different twist to engineering. There is this stereotype that men are logical while women are emotional. But we are breaking the stereotype. I like to do something different.
What is the design project about?
In hospitals, I don’t know about here, even if you are bedridden, at least you can move your hands. So, you have the remote controls to turn on the lights, or switch channels or call the nurse and things like that. For the quadriplegic patients, they can’t move their arms or legs, but can’t access their environment. The idea behind it is to provide the means at which patients can control their immediate environment. We met patients to find out their experiences and frustrations and we selected someone who had a motorcycle accident and couldn’t move any part of his body.
That is what I mean about females having a different twist to engineering. It was a team of four – three boys with me as leader. We built the software, connected it to a hardware that was connected to all the devices in the room, so the patient had the opportunity to change the light, the channels, chat with the nurses, access internet to keep himself busy, rather than just sitting there the whole time.
The mouse has a knob on its head that would make the user to move the cursor and click to get things done, just like a mini station for him on a computer that has everything he needs to control his environment. This took us about a year to put up. It was good and successful, and everybody was pleased with the project.
The department was very supportive. I could walk into my adviser’s office any day, I have her personal phone number to call her if anything was going wack. They bought everything. You just make a list of what you need and they sign, you buy what you need and they cover all the expenses, there are no hurdles. You can imagine trying to implement something like that here. God knows how long it’s going to take to have them pay you back.
Did you think of the project because you were a triangle student – from class to library and to your room?
Not really, right from high school in Queen’s College, I was in the top 10 in my set. I always take my academics seriously. Expectations had always been high, you come home with your result and they expect nothing but all As except in Igbo and French. I went to Denver and I was determined to keep it high, because at the end of the day, your parents will be proud of you, besides with a very good GP you can be wherever you want. Anybody who knows me will tell you I am the class clown. I make everybody laugh; anytime you come to class and there is someone doing something funny, it’s me. But despite all the noise in the class, I studied independently, so, my mates hate me for that because at the end of the exams, I come out tops, which always make them mad. I mix studies and play well. I am very sociable, I am not a triangle student, and I don’t even like the library and don’t go there.
How would you describe your stay there?
I enjoyed my stay there, but it was a trying time because I went there at a young age of 16. Typically, you start college there when you are 18. I was much younger than everyone else. Engineering is not a female major. It was not difficult to blend in Denver because black population is very small. So, I am one of the three female students and one out of the two blacks in the class. The people are very receptive and almost everybody in the campus knows me as Engineering student. Teachers there are very passionate and encourage students to be independent. Education there is easier than here, where you cram a lot of information and at the end of six months, you just have to pour everything out.
Any down moments?
There were some challenging points because of difference in culture. Going from here to a completely different, I encountered culture shock. I went there not having anybody to run to. I had to make new friends and understand their accent. I cried the first day I got there because it was all different from Nigeria, but with time, I caught up with the changes. At the beginning, I just couldn’t understand, especially with the literature class, because there were some information they expected you to have and this took me some time to catch up. I also had some problems with spellings, as the British spelling can’t be used for an American word.
And the Nigerian community
In Denver, the Nigerian community is not much. The first time I got there, I heard there was a lot of Nigerians there, but it was not until about three months of my living in Denver that I met someone who knew many other Nigerians there. And I asked myself, where have you guys been hiding? That was when I knew that every first Friday of the month there was a Nigerian party in one club. I was so annoyed to learn of that. But in my campus, we are just three. The Nigerian community does not exist because black people are not that much.
Right now, plans are on to patent the project over there. Already, it’s been (published) in a couple of scientific journals. Technically, it is the property of the school because they provided all the resources, but if I am interested in setting it up here, I have access to that as it is my work. Right now, I just want to be done with school, face my Master’s before thinking of commercializing it. I like the emotional impact it has on people’s life. I remembered the interview we had with a patient and how he shared his experience to make phone calls to his daughter; it was such an emotional one and to be part of all that was a great feeling for me.
My dream is to head an outfit and to manage people. I have the intention to come back home, but I have to get my Master’s out of the way. There is so much to do here. America is great, but it’s not that great, to be honest. I always look forward to coming home. I always cry every time I had to go back there. I eventually want to open an NGO, sometime along the line to help women in engineering field as well as mentor upcoming ones.