One on One with a ROSATOM Africa scholarship awardee

Kenya is in the phase of adopting alternative energy solutions. In the midst of these developments, I got an opportunity to chat with a young student studying Nuclear Engineering and Thermal Physics at the National Research Nuclear University in Russia.

23 yr old Robert Folkenberg Siro, hailing from Migori County, got a scholarship courtesy of ROSATOM.

What motivated you to pursue Nuclear engineering ? Growing up what might have precipitated this ?

My passion for nuclear engineering and joining one of the world’s top ranked and competitive institutions for nuclear programs isn’t by chance. At a tender age I already loved science and math, and to some extent gained insights of how a lot of stuff work.

It is this fascination that boosted and is still boosting my curiosity to solve real problems through comprehensive golden standards for investigating the natural world in the context of what resides deeply inside the atom.

I know with the highest degree of certitude that my chance at MEPhI is a golden opportunity to gain engineering, mathematical and scientific skills for translating numbers of an invisible world into practical and real-world applications.

Nuclear Engineering and Thermal Physics is by no doubt  my place in the society, since am such a character who is always obsessed with seeing the results of my work. It has always been my dream to research and conduct experiments, to give the world results, publishable results, to change the way and what most of the world think about splitting a nuclide.

In MEPhI, I believe there’s everything I need to prepare for unlocking the secrets hidden in the deepest of the atom. I have plans to later join grad school to contribute to the development of highly advanced nuclear reactors; thorium based fission reactor experiments, and later thermonuclear fusion reactor research and experiments, reverse engineer the sun to give the world unlimited energy, to make the world a better place.

How did you join the National Research Nuclear University in Russia, your journey and how you applied?

Five years ago, after graduating from high school, I was offered an opportunity by my former high school deputy principal, to teach high school Physics and Chemistry before joining the university.

He had taught me Physics/Chemistry in high school and recognized my strength in the units. During this period, he’d praise and comment on my approach to the subjects, especially ‘Radioactivity’ in Physics and Chemistry to his fellow teachers in the staff room.

I think his comments somehow motivated me into exploring a nuclear oriented program. Before joining the Technical University of Kenya(TUK), I started digging into the internet so I could know much about the world’s top ranked institutions for nuclear engineering programs. I found National Research Nuclear University(NRNU- MEPhI) in the list of top ranked destinations for Nuclear.

But I didn’t know what to do to get into a top ranked nuclear institution, and so I had to pursue what was within my reach; to accept placement by the  government to study at TUK. Later in the year 2018, in one of the events organized by the Association of Engineering Students of TUK, I heard about ROSATOM Russia, the state atomic energy corporation.

On researching about ROSATOM, I noticed that MEPhI, my dream university is one of its partner universities, and that ROSATOM offered scholarships to bright foreign students willing to study nuclear related programs in one of its partner universities.

I decided to explore this opportunity first hand from a trusted source at the local Russian Federation embassy. They took me through every step required to get the scholarship.

I submitted my translated academic documents, and medical certificates for scrutiny by Rossotrudnichestvo representative at the embassy. After which I received a call from the embassy that my application has been approved for further processing.

The next step was to apply for nomination at the Ministry of Education of Kenya. I met their requirements and went through the nomination interview successfully. I received an invitation from the embassy to participate in screening tests.

After scoring 95% in the screening tests, the embassy called me and informed me that I have been awarded the scholarship to study Nuclear Engineering and Thermal Physics at MEPhI, and that I needed to wait for further instructions on the next steps. After a few months I received a visa invitation from the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, contacted MEPhI to confirm my arrival date, collected my visa from the embassy and came to Russia.

You finally joined MEPhI, what happened then ?

Once I arrived I got to Russia on October 2019,I enrolled in MEPhI’s preparatory faculty, which is a nine-month mandatory training course in Russian language, Scientific Style of Speech, and engineering-oriented subjects to prepare us for the intensive Nuclear training.

In my first semester, I had to take extra Russian classes for 5 hours daily for profession oriented subjects in addition to continuation with the Russian language. Apart from class related activities, the faculty has been keen on organizing events to help international students learn about Russian culture, customs, and to help us adapt to the environment quite fast.

You are such a young promising thought leader in Nuclear Energy. What else in life would you say you have accomplished?

Having studied in an Engineering field that is slightly different from Nuclear before, I would say am proud of myself, even though I didn’t get enough time to engage in quite a number of industrial activities and contributions, since the scholarship came pretty soon in the course of my final year.

In my attempt to make the world a better place in the field of Geospatial(Spaceborne Remote Sensing), in my final year, I worked on what my final year research project supervisor Ms. Pamela Ochungo, PhD researcher at International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology(ICIPE) termed as complicated and way above what an undergraduate research project should look like.

In her own words, “Your research project is way above what an undergraduate research project should be, and in fact should have been a masters project. What you have done was already over sufficient for your level.” 

Well, that is what I wanted to work on; something unique and complicated. My final year research title was ‘Satellite Band Radiometric Calibrations, Topographic Normalization and Land Surface Temperature Computation Tool’(SAT-RadCTNL).

I developed a multispectral remote sensing data processing tool that does radiometric calibrations of satellite sensor bands, topographic normalization of the bands, Land Surface Temperature(LST) computations, and computation of spectral indices. SAT-RadCTNL is suitable for computation of LST with relatively high degree of accuracy, and that is most preferable for scientific investigations of Urban Heat Island, effects of land-air interactions, planetary energy balance and geothermal anomalies; surface heat fluxes associated with potential areas of geothermal resource.

I worked on the project successfully and the Department of Geoinformation and Earth Observation in the Faculty of Engineering Sciences and Technology at TUK accepted it as a partial fulfillment for a bachelor’s degree. That is an achievement.

While at TUK, I got invited to a number of seminars and discussions organized by Engineering organizations and departments, to give scientific presentations and talks. And finally, am proud that just at the age  of 17 and 18, I taught high school Physics and Chemistry for 10 months.

I made my students understand the world around them without much of difficulty, because teaching used to be and is still fun. This was an opportunity to convince the world that there is much to be done, and I grabbed it. Some of these students actually joined me in my former university, to pursue the same program I used to pursue other engineering programs. Some of them joined other universities and colleges in Kenya. I am proud to have inspired them, and that to me is an achievement to be proud of.

Best advice you ever received ? Any advice for someone who wants to study in Russia?

I’ve received advice several times , but the best career advice I ever received was from my mom when I was pursuing Russia:

She said, “Son, figure out what you love and build your career out of it, get more education if you can. We’ll support you by all means.”

I didn’t expect that kind of advice from her, as at that time I was in my final year at TUK. She always encouraged me to follow my heart. My decision to study Nuclear Engineering in Russia has not yielded enough fruits yet, but am optimistic it will. 

And to every student who wants to build their career out of Nuclear Engineering and related fields in Russia, ROSATOM has your back. It gives eager young minds of tomorrow opportunities to rehears for significant contributions in the Nuclear arena. Russia is a recognized world leader in engineering and scientific training. Being in a Russian university, is an opportunity to get knowledge first hand from renowned world scientists, engineers, mathematicians and leaders. 

Russia as you said is beautiful. Being a young student in a foreign country, am sure you face challenges. What are some of these situations that you have encountered?

Engineering students encounter quite a number of challenges. I can attest to this, I’ve been an Engineering student before, and I’ll still hold that status for quite some time. Every student hopes to successfully earn a degree and then get a well paying job.

Especially if you are an international student, away from home. Well, we go through a lot; homesickness, financial problems, depression, social problems, adjusting to new systems, and many more. These challenges are not so critical especially if we learn to deal with them.

I deal with most of these challenges by taking my hobby seriously. A hoobby is a true emotional release and pleasurable experience. It’s one of the ways you’d feel exited about what you are doing, it’s really an outlet for releasing stress.

Financial problems on the other hand is a difficult student problem to tackle, especially if the student is expected in the university full-time. One way out of this is to break bad spending habits, refraining from buying stuff unnecessarily.

I mean everything here in Russia is eye catching and one would be tempted into overspending. Am glad that there’s a monthly stipend for every student awarded with ROSATOM scholarship. It’s a huge boost to us.

Frankly, Nuclear Engineering is a complicated field, but not impossible. Am committing to a truly fascinating field of study that by no doubt encompasses tackling, understanding and applying very complex mathematical, engineering and scientific concepts. You can therefore imagine what a typical day in the life of a Nuclear engineering student looks like.

Adjusting to a foreign environment can be at times be difficult. So how have you dealt with Russia?

Adapting to Russian life has been a challenge, especially the climate. The winter has been incredibly harsh. It’s awesome though to be in part of the world where temperature drops to such extreme values; what doesn’t happen in Kenya. My friends back in Kenya do not believe me when I tell them that it’s   -100C outside.

I mean they don’t believe that I’d survive in such extreme conditions . It’s even incredibly awesome that in some sections of Russia like Yakutsk in February, temperatures can go as low as -330C. I survive by dressing up really warm; T-shirt, a shirt, a sweatshirt, a winter jacket, a scarf, a hat, and then timberland boots.

The other challenge is the language. Russian is really one of the most difficult languages to learn; the pronunciation, grammar and the so many exceptions. The Russian alphabet has 33 characters, with one character ‘Ы’, that I haven’t been able to pronounce well ever since. It’s even surprising that Russian nouns have gender.

How do you hope to apply your studies back in Kenya

Kenya has a strategic approach of development for the period 2008 to 2030. This is Kenya’s decision to be a middle-income country by 2030.

Unless it’s rewritten to say, something like “Vision 2040”, because for a country like Kenya, it’s really going to be difficult to put in place everything that will see us achieve the vision within the stipulated period of time.

Expanding access to clean and safe water, and connecting every section of the country to the power-grid. We must strive by all means to maintain the course of being a carbon neutral or carbon negative nation.

One thing that makes me a happy man with Kenya’s energy sector, is the fact that more than 70% of its installed electrical capacity is harnessed from renewable energy sources. It’s very obvious that energy is the sole cornerstone of every country’s prosperity.

According to “The Least Power Development Plan, Study Period: 2017 – 2037”,  2018 report of the Kenya energy sector, the installed capacity in the power-grid as at June 2017 was about 2,333 MW, and the peak demand at 1,656 MW.

Hydroelectricity is still the main source of electrical production in terms of installed capacities in Kenya, but the fact that it seems to be quite unreliable has pushed the government of Kenya to favor exploration of other alternative sources, especially geothermal and thermal. Nuclear energy is no exception. It is an alternative potential source.

Worldwide natural Uranium reserves, required to power nuclear plants are estimated to be 5 million tons that can last at least 100 years. I am more optimistic about Fusion technology, giving mankind unlimited energy harnessed from the most abundant element in the universe(Hydrogen).

Nuclear energy is applicable in several areas; medicine, agriculture, the military and so on. Well, you can therefore see that Kenya can go Nuclear as well, and its eager young minds of tomorrow must be trained.

Finally, what do you find exciting in Russia?

Snow of course is one of the interesting things in Russia. I used to see snow in movies, but when I came to Russia, I was so excited when I saw snow falling for the first time, covering sections of roads, buildings, trees e.t.c. It’s all beautiful. I can’t forget about metro.

It was a magical experience riding on the Moscow metro; I felt like I was in a time machine. I mean if you miss a train in a metro station, within seconds another one arrives. Man! Metro is a “beast” hidden beneath the streets of Moscow. The Trans-Siberian railway; the longest railway in the world. Oh! And there are very beautiful women and very kind people here too. And many more….

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