‘The Whole World is Interested’ (AMSEN)

Alan Anderson

If names are any guide, Isiaka Oluwole Oladele would seem to have been born under an auspicious star. His middle name, Oluwole, means roughly “God has come home” in the Yoruba tongue of his native Nigeria. Indeed, by personality he is positive and confident, a young PhD candidate in the AMSEN network ready to make the most of his opportunities. During his childhood, however, there were few signs of good fortune or even hope, and his ability to move this far into academic engineering today seems all but miraculous.

Isiaka was born in Owo, in the southwestern corner of the country, and when the time for schooling approached, his father gave him no support. “He was speaking from the Nigerian perspective,” said Isiaka. “He discouraged me from going to school. He said that when you’re a student, you don’t earn anything to take home to your wife and family.”

He left home to live with his mother, hoping for a better chance. But she was taking care of his older brother, and said she could not be expected to take on the additional burden of young Wole. “I decided right then,” he said, “that I was going to depend just on myself and my friends.” He went to work for farmers, saving his earnings and biding his time. He had an additional insight when he was sent to stay with his uncle for a time. His uncle was a technologist at the University of Ibadan, and with a regular salary, he was able to maintain a comfortable household. “I saw how he treated his children,” recalled Isiaka. “They would go and buy things in stores, plan their meals, and had a nice home. I told myself I was going to have that.”

He learned an additional lesson from his uncle, who complained that because he lacked a university education, he could never be a lecturer; he was stuck at the level of a technologist. Isiaka went to high school in Owo, graduating in 1990, but after that he seemed stuck, finding only a basic job in a textile factory. “I was illiterate,” he said. “I didn’t know anything.”

But one day he followed a friend home and heard his mother giving guidance to her son. He decided to listen to whatever advice she gave his friend – and to follow it himself. When the mother advised a career in science, he decided that science was for him as well. His friend, however, had family support, and so he could aim for medical school. Isaika knew he could not afford that route, but he also knew he was bright enough to study some branch of science, along with other junior level friends who were choosing the same path.

In 1994 his opportunity came when he was admitted to the Federal University of Technology in Akure (FUTA). His uncle, who knew how much the boy loved football, told him firmly that it was now time to “face the books” – to change his priorities. He did just that, consulting with his friends and taking every science course available. He began to turn toward engineering, because of its perceived importance at FUTA. “I didn’t go into physics,” he said, “because that was not recognized as engineering. When you are an engineer, you are somebody.” Further, he began to specialize in materials engineering. He decided that materials engineers were going to “rule the world. If you talk about any important advancement, you are talking about materials.”

When he graduated, he had no luck find a job lecturing or consulting in his chosen field. His friends urged him to go on for a master’s degree, but he was reluctant to prolong schooling. He limped along with low-pay teaching posts in private schools until he finally agreed that he needed advanced degrees. “I was reluctant,” he said. “I did it just to quiet my friends. I had to borrow money, but they kept pushing me.”

He was able to sign on for the master’s program at FUTA, in the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, and found an interesting project developing automobile engine gaskets from new hybrid materials. He mixed traditional bonding material with natural products that would reduce costs and be sustainable, including bamboo, coconut husk, sawdust, and plant sponge, or loofah. He tested the strength and efficacy of each in a simulated engine environment, finding that coconut fibers and sponge were the best.

In 2009, even before he finished his MSc, FUTA offered him a teaching appointment with full staff benefits. The university also required him to continue his studies at the PhD level, but by this time “he was hooked on materials research and teaching, and no friends were needed.”

At around the same time he heard about AMSEN, and was accepted into the program. He was eager for the chance to advance his studies of mixed materials. He launched a study of sisal fiber, using it to reinforce polypropylene as a strong, lightweight, waterproof composite for structural applications, such as ceiling tiles.

Sisal appealed to him for several reasons. The first was that it is renewable and inexpensive – unlike petroleum products. Also, it was availability locally. Sisal is extracted from the leaves of agave plants, especially Agave sisalana, which thrives in East Africa and is particularly abundant on vast estates around Morogoro, Tanzania. And while its usefulness for ropes and twine has been known since the end of the 18th century, it has recently been found suited to a wide range of applications, including low-cost and specialty papers, buffing cloth, geotextiles, filters, carpets, wall coverings, macramé, and even dartboards. It is utilized as a strengthening agent to replace asbestos and fiber glass, and is increasingly favored by the automobile industry, where its strength, "naturalness," and environmentally friendly characteristics are valued.

For his research, he has investigated several new ways to make the use of sisal more economical and environmentally friendly. It is traditionally extracted by an energy intensive process called decortication, in which leaves are crushed and beaten by a rotating wheel inset with knives. Instead, Isiaka uses soil retting – leaving the harvested leaves in soil to allow micro-organisms and moisture to soften and separate the sisal fibers. He also experimented with simple chemical treatments to strengthen the fiber-polypropylene bonding, and evaluated the mechanical properties and water resistance of the final product. He has concluded that soil retting allows easier extraction of the fiber, and that potassium hydroxide treatment best enhances the properties of the extracted fiber. The resulting sisal-polypropylene composite is found to perform better than polypropylene alone, at lower cost.

Isiaka remains hooked on materials engineering, and looks forward to continuing his work on additional materials. His goal is to be able to take his investigations to the nanoscale level. “If I have my way,” he said with great energy, “and get my own lab, I will keep doing this work in polymers. The whole world is interested.”