Doctoral Fellow Bernard Alaka’s nurturing culture of undergraduate students in research
Having a sit-down with this man, you can’t help but notice his loud elegance. Elegance in the sense of his articulate diction, intellectual depth, and passion. He knows his stuff and he is a decorated researcher. An ardent believer in “Research solves societal problems best”, he thirsts for more knowledge and is on a quest to feed into his already game-changing ideas.
We continue our series of highlighting outstanding research work in this year’s Research Month by profiling Bernard Alaka. He is a Doctoral fellow and has been lecturing at the School of Computing and Engineering Sciences (SCES), formerly Faculty of Information Technology, since 2017.
While exchanging our introductory pleasantries, he jokingly but pragmatically says that Strathmore blood runs in him, having done his undergraduate, graduate, and now doctoral studies in the University. “Strathmore all the way! I would not have had it any other way,” he says with a proud smile.
The genesis of a culture
Alaka’s research work choice this year is a rather interesting one: “Involving undergraduate students in research”.
Every time the Research Office has a Research Symposium, Alaka always brings in three or four, and sometimes up to 10 students to work with him on a particular topic. “When I am teaching in class, through my many interactions with students, I notice brilliant individuals who are very good at what they do and are eager to learn more. In my wisdom I thought the best incentive for them would be to reward knowledge with more knowledge and thus involve them in research. At the very beginning, I thought it boring to promise that the best students in my units would get an opportunity to work with me on a research project. Interestingly, they found it quite intriguing and would strive to do very well as they looked forward to working with me. It has now been a successful three years running of nurturing research protégés in my undergraduate classes – a culture I am extremely proud of!
I cannot tell you enough just how much I cherish working on research projects. Seeing my students enjoy it as much as I do gives me a rare kind of joy, one that encourages me to actively contrive more interesting ways to involve them in research.
As an agent of imparting knowledge, there is a certain thrill that comes with experiencing the whole process of your students getting to learn and know more about a certain topic, producing desirable results, and becoming “experts in the making” of a particular field.
“As at the time when Albert Einstein was writing his popular paper on “Relativity Theory”, he was not even a professor, he was a secretary. His committed pursuit for answers on his idea is what got him to the level of elevation we as a society have placed him, ages after he died. What I am driving at with this is; You do not need to be a Professor, a graduate or a PhD student to do research.
Being a Professor, a PhD student, or even a Doctor of Philosophy, for instance, makes you an expert in that particular field. To be a researcher on the other hand, all it takes is an inquisitive mind with a purposeful and intentional exploration on an idea, the results of which one believes, will solve a certain issue in the society.”
This is Alaka’s simple yet terse debunking of an unpopular expectation that undergraduate students cannot have a respectable seat at the research table.
A qualitative and quantitative assortment
At the core of research is the goal to solve a real-world problem, as opposed to piecing together heretic sentiments. An Information Technology research and project implementation more often than not takes a blended approach; incorporating both the qualitative and quantitative research models. A Proof of Concept entails developing a system that proves a problem can be solved using the system. The quantitative aspect delves into answering the question of “How effective will the system, algorithm, or model be?” Whereas the qualitative aspect is satisfied if the said system, algorithm, or model has solved the problem it was intended to.
A challenging yet wholesome experience
Alaka explains that there is a very thin line between being passionate about one’s research and being impractical in its application. His research beliefs are strongly founded on realism, authenticity, and above all, being practical.
In the upcoming 2nd Research and Innovation Conference whose theme is Collaborative Research for Sustainable Development, Alaka has partnered with Odhiambo Jakinda, a 4th year Bachelor of Business Information Technology student. They will be presenting their idea on dietary advice based on ones’ genetic composition. He says the project is tailored for vulnerable individuals with a strict nutrition regimen, such as cancer patients and expectant mothers. Through machine learning, the system will tell one’s health reaction to different food types and schedule an advisable meal plan.
He will also be working with Deepali Bhatt, another brilliant mind who is coming up with an accountability blockchain application to be used by relief food donors for food distribution. This will ensure a fluid disbursement of funds and relief food where donors are not taken advantage of.
Alaka has worked on many other projects. He says while it has its myriad of challenges, it has been worth it. He says his passion for reading and writing has guaranteed an ever full pool of ideas. “The more you read, the more you get ideas… and sometimes even your own problems will spark something that has the potential of turning into something great,” he adds. One of his treasured works: A Q-Learning Model for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy of Insomnia Patients, was based on his own lack of sleep, which he decided to remedy using a behavioural system. One of his projects: Redefining Data Dimensionality through Dynamic Linkages in Data-Space Continuum, was at some point not published on five journals because it was deemed either not practical or was dubbed “ahead of its time”.
A rallying call
With a big smile, Alaka’s concluding remarks are not your usual pep talk, they are a rallying call, “Research is indeed hard, time consuming and sometimes torturous to the mind. Most of the time you will not be paid to do research, but when you do get paid, it is handsome; both intellectually and pocket wise. Above all, the incentive for research should not always be the pay but the bliss that comes with actually solving a real world problem. I encourage undergraduate students to be actively involved in research in anything that they find intriguing. This will see to it that we have a society that has most of its problems solved through research: most developed countries solve their problems this way.”
This article was written by Francis Kabutu.
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