Prof.  Austin  Esogbue: I Maintained First Position in School to Avoid Being a Farmer

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Smile is a permanent fixture on his face as his gait exudes grace. The applause that followed him as he sauntered up to the podium was thunderous. His students loved him and his American university where he teaches adores him. Outstanding, indefatigable and inventive, he is a recipient of many international awards. From a sleepy town in Ibusa, he has become a tech giant in America. Unassuming, devoted and cerebral, he combines scholarship with selflessness. You can call him a genius; it won’t be an understatement. He parades impressive academic degrees that can make the best of scholars green with envy. Professor Emeritus Austin Esogbue, native of Ibusa, Delta State, is a distinguished academic who has made Nigeria and Africa proud in Diaspora. His academic journey began in 1961 when he won the African Scholarship Programme of American Universities. Having immersed himself into what the United States could offer, he went ahead to break new grounds on many occasions. In 1977, he became the first black to become a full professor of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the first black professor of the Institute.  Esogbue was the first African to have served on the board of the United States’ National Aeronautical Space (NASA). He was equally among special Nigerians met by President Muhammadu Buhari during his recent visit to the US. He currently lives in Fulton County, Georgia. Prof. Esogbue speaks withFunke Olaode about life after retirement and his technological projects for Nigeria

• Why I’m Committed to Nigeria’s Technological Development
• I Slept for Only Three Hours Every Day Until I Retired…

Can we have an insight into your background?
I was born to James Nwanze and Helen Nwakuso Esogbue of Umuafene Village, Isieke, Umuekea, Ibusa in Delta State. I was born in Kaduna, the then capital of Northern Nigeria on December 25th, 1940, but of Delta origin. By that time, my father was working with the engineering department of the Public Works Department (PWD). My mother was a nurse. In a way, I am from an educated setting. Coming from such setting no doubt exposed me to an early education and a disciplined family. The family was loving but tough. My father always emphasised excellence because he believed no matter what you achieved, he wanted you to achieve more.

What are some of your childhood memories?

Looking back, I remember the eclipse of 1947 when I was about seven years. And as kids, we thought the world was coming to an end. Everywhere was dark and we were afraid. In fact, we said to ourselves please let’s have our last supper because we would not be able to eat anymore. Also, I remember when we had just come from Enugu to Ibusa, my home town, the local people looked at us as people who had come from abroad and thought we were lazy. During the native festival, there were a lot of drums, wrestling and the young men would show their manhood and all that. So I came with my sisters and they (the young men) came to embarrass me. I didn’t want to wrestle because I didn’t want to dirty my dress on the sand.  But this particular guy walked away, picked some sands and poured it on my clothe. I got so upset that I took off my cloth and began to wrestle with him. I picked him up and threw him to the ground and broke his right hand and the bone came out. People ran and started screaming because they never saw such a thing. It was amazing and scary. I was not rascally as a boy. I was a Catholic and a Mass server. We had to confess our sins if we did anything wrong. And we were so scared to embark on rascality. Again, I was always first in classes and didn’t think because I was smart; (it was) by God’s grace. Also, my father said if I didn’t keep the first position he would not pay my school fees anymore and I would then go and become a farmer. I didn’t want to be a farmer so that kept me on my toes to act smart. But while in the high school in Kaduna I fought a lot because I was the smallest in the class and was always coming first. The bigger boys would pick on me. Somehow, they thought I was being favoured by the teachers.

What about schooling?
I attended primary school at Sacred Heart, Ibusa before going to St. John’s College, Kaduna for secondary education. I was among the first class selected to take advantage of the Federal School of Science, Lagos, which was founded to speed up the system in the science and technological field. Prior to that, Nigeria had only University College, Ibadan and Nigerian College of Science and Technology in Zaria.  Luckily, there was a programme called African Scholarship Programme of American Universities, which opened their doors to African students. There were about 25 students that went in 1960s. These set of students excelled and because they did very well, those schools got encouraged to broaden it not only for Nigeria but for most of African countries. My former engineering training was crystallised, earning degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles where I got Bsc in Electrical Engineering, U.C. Berkeley Option, and Minor in Mathematics in June 1964.
I went on to acquire more degrees with an MSc in Industrial Engineering and Operational Research from Columbia University and PhD in Engineering – Operations Research and Control Theory from the University of Southern California in June 1968. Additional studies were taken at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leading to a Certificate in Advanced Health Systems Dynamics Modeling in 1974, and the University of California at Berkeley. With modesty, I was the first PhD graduate of the celebrated world renowned mathematician, Professor Richard Bellman at the University of Southern California (USC).

Can you mention some of your achievements as an academia?
My first formal academic tenure track appointment was as an Assistant Professor of Operation Research and member of the Systems Research Centre at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. I joined the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in June 1972 as an Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering under a joint appointment with the Health Systems Research Centre. I went through the process and I got promoted quickly. In 1977, I became the first black to be promoted a full professor in Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. And the first black professor of the Institute which was celebrated during the 50 years of having blacks matriculated in Georgia Tech in 2010. Georgia Tech was an all-White male school for a long time. And 1961, the year I went to the United States, coincided with the time blacks were allowed to matriculate. I have had a fulfilling career and I am grateful to God. Being the first and longest serving black professor in Georgia Tech’s history and the first African promoted full professor of engineering in a major United States research university is overwhelming. Having risen  to the pinnacle of my career and bestowed with  numerous professional and academic organisations including being elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1972, a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical Electronics Engineering (IEEE), class of 2000, Fellow of the Institute for Operations Research and  Management Sciences, and a 2000 elected Fellow of the Nigerian Academic of Sciences, Fellow of the Nigerian Academic of Engineering and others too numerous to mention.
I retired from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall of 2010. Apart from the recognition I received from students and organisations while I was at Georgia Tech, much more than my colleagues, it seemed retirement opened a floodgate of awards. It began with my alma mater, UCLA that bestowed on me the 2010 Distinguished UCLA Engineering Alumni in Academia Award. Several Nigerian organisational awards were received in 2012 including the Nigerian Consulate General Life Achievement and Good Ambassador of Nigeria Award. The awards however reached a crescendo when in 2013 alone, I received seven awards beginning with the 2013 Distinguished Partner in Science Education Award from the Stephen Oluwole Awokoya Foundation for Science Education for contributions and encouragement for the growth of science education and youth development in Nigeria. Georgia Tech Black Alumni Organisation inducted me into their Hall of Fame as a ‘Legend and Leader’ under the Faculty Category for many pioneering and exemplary service to the community. I also had the good fortune and privilege of serving on a high level panel, the Safety Advisory Board of US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Our service led to the eradication of space flight accidents. I was awarded the Public Service Medal for my leadership role and a Certificate of Merit.

When were you appointed as professor emeritus?
My appointment took effect in 2012. Emeritus status is an honorific title signifying distinguished service to Georgia Tech. With regards to the above distinction, it is worthy of note that my school is the largest and best of its type in the world; its graduate programme having been ranked number one for 26 years consecutively by US News and World Report and our undergraduate programme is also rated first for the past 18 years since undergraduate programmes were being ranked. Our programme was about average in the US when I got there. I contributed significantly to raising the national and global reputation the school has enjoyed in the past 30 years.  I was voted by the entire student body at Georgia Tech in 2005 and awarded the prize ‘the most likely faculty member to win a Nobel Prize.’ (Earlier in 1997, I was voted by the student government leaders of all campus organisations to be that faculty member and staff who in addition to excellence in teaching and research has done more to ensure student success. For this, my name is engraved in a plate in the entrance to the faculty lounge immortalising the faculty giants of the university.

How is life after retirement?
Life has really been great. I feel a sense of freedom that I had never known before.  I sleep longer hours now as opposed to the average of three hours that I slept for decades. I still stay up late at night attending to a sundry of requests from various parts of the world. The difference though is that I feel I do not have to do anything anymore. I just need to live a good life, free of stress. I do what I do only because I want to, love to, and feel it would make some difference in someone’s life. I do not do things anymore just to please somebody or because it is expected of me. No more expectations. I feel that I had done more than enough for so many people and for so long. This is now time for me and those I love. The only problem is that I seem to naturally love everybody.  Part of the reason I retired from my excellent position in the world’s best programme in my field is to enable me spend more time contributing to Nigerian development by sharing some of the best practices  I have  acquired with Nigerian institutions. I have, for example, intensified my involvement with two of the premier national academies, namely the Nigerian Academy of Science whom I served for two consecutive terms as an elected officer with the portfolio of Academic Secretary, Physical Sciences. I served another term on the Council as the Representative for Physical Sciences. The US academies (Science, Engineering and Medicine) had earlier given a grant to four African academies including Nigeria to assist them to upgrade their standards to world class level.

What is new right now?
As a founder of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation of the Americas (NIDOA), I continue to support and mentor the organisation’s leaders. At the 2014 fundraiser banquet, I made a donation but the Consul General, Ambassador Teneilabe challenged NIDO to embark on a healthcare project to save lives and improve the quality of lives in Nigeria. The suggested project was to build a trauma centre in Abuja. We soon formed a group and expanded it to include diagnostics. The group mushroomed to an all-Diaspora group called the Nigerian Diaspora Diagnostics and Trauma Foundation, (NDDTF), a non-profit 501 registered in the State of Georgia. I am helping to provide leadership to the foundation which intends to start operating with a diagnostic centre and develop into diagnostic and trauma centre, first in Abuja and later in each of the six geo-political zones. The idea is to institute a state-of-the-art, level one facility for treating victims of trauma in Nigeria by Diaspora health teams considering that many Nigerians who engage in medical tourism, wind up being treated by Nigerian professionals in those foreign lands that they go to. It is a major drain on Nigeria’s resources, particularly scarce foreign exchange, and the impaired quality of response notwithstanding.

What happened to your Nigerian project – the Diaspora promoting technology you started in 2005?
You may recall that the original idea was to provide some soft-landing for Nigerians in Diaspora embarking on projects in Nigeria. We started with partnering with fellow Nigerian professionals resident in the country and using science and technology as a framework for Diaspora contributions. The first event was a conference and I organised; a committee of Diaspora experts in various fields of science and technology to participate in the conference with Ambassador Joe Keshi of the Nigerian National Volunteer Service as General Chair. I chaired the session on nuclear and space technologies and made a presentation to the then President (Olusegun) Obasanjo with a recommendation that Nigeria should not only embrace both areas but vigorously pursue programmes to explore and utilise associated opportunities for national development. They seemed heretical to some of our people then and even now. I however knew that we could not afford to stay away from these technologies including biotechnology and information technology.  We should shake off this somehow persistent national lethargy towards development and always embracing microwave appetites for the now-syndrome. We should not always be playing catch-up; jumping in only after the rest of the world has been fully immersed in these technologies.
I also know that many of these technologies when appropriately cultivated and utilised drive national socio-economic development with exponential returns on investment. Most important, there is usually an incubation period during which time, you train and educate the requisite manpower and imbibe the necessary culture for their sustainability. Additionally, we have intelligent Nigerians who can be and should be so trained to master these technologies. Some progress, though retarded and anemic, has been made in both areas. The National Agency for Space Research and Development (NASRDA) for example, has recorded successes mostly in the satellite launching area. Some constraints include the pervasive funding problems and the characteristic closed box, myopic management practices.  The National Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) seeks to generate clean energy through nuclear power plants. Though the idea was conceived almost 20 years ago, we are still mostly in the manpower development phase. This non-fossil fuel option conceived much earlier to diversify our energy options as opposed to an oil-riveted economy is now enjoying some attractiveness considering the glut in the oil market and the concomitant slump in economic generating capacity of our oil fields and refineries.

How often do you visit Nigeria?
I am based in America but frequent Nigeria on a regular basis. As a way of giving back, at the 50th anniversary of the launching of the first scholarship programme of the Africa America Institute (AAI), the African Scholarship Programme of American Universities (ASPAU), we (the alumni) organised a reunion to devise a vehicle for paying a lasting tribute to the programme that sent us to America. We recognised that the programme was highly successful in producing first-rate manpower for national development. The reunion activities culminated in the formation of a non-profit organisation called the Africa Future Foundation (AFF).  We decried falling standards in many aspect of life in Nigeria today but agreed that education was hardest hit and resolved to do something about it. I was elected Vice President. Many of us pledged cooperation with AAI but wanted an essentially independent African group addressing African problems as we see them. I do radio and TV shows when I visit Nigeria. Examples are the ‘Nigeria Pride’ show of Radio Nigeria and the one-hour show on Silverbird, by Judita DaSilva entitled ‘Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things’ featuring such giants as Dr. Alex Ekwueme.