Grad mixes science with student journalism in quest for versatile skill set

For Tom Ndekezi, university was a chance to gain practical skills not only for a variety of jobs, but a variety of careers.


Science grad Tom Ndekezi took full advantage of his time at the U of A to gain practical skills as a scientist, a student journalist and a volunteer visiting with seniors and hospital patients. (Photo: Supplied)

Tom Ndekezi remembers hearing a statistic during his second year at the University of Alberta that would drive every decision about his academic future from then on: members of his generation can expect to have six to eight careers in their lifetime.

“Not even just jobs, but careers,” said the graduating Faculty of Science student. “It was then that I realized that I had to use university as an opportunity to amass as many skills as possible to give me as much latitude in fields that I'm interested in.”

At that point, he was already beginning to drift away from a high school idea of becoming a doctor, and leaning toward something in science. He had also fallen back on a skill he had previously grown a passion for: writing.

“In high school, I think my strongest skill was writing,” said Ndekezi. “With science, I just realized that I probably wouldn't have as many opportunities to write, or at least write about some of the topics I was interested in.”

Telling stories, tackling big topics

Anxious to scratch that writing itch, Ndekezi walked through the doors of the U of A student newspaper, The Gateway, midway through his first year.

“I wasn't really that interested in talking to people or the journalism aspect; I just kind of wanted to have fun writing.”

A steady collection of satires and opinion pieces would eventually shift a bit when the editors convinced him to take on some stories talking to various artists about their upcoming events. It turns out Ndekezi liked writing about people.

“Fundamentally I understood that Edmonton had some really interesting people, but in my heart I didn't really realize that there were so many people doing cool stuff in the city. Journalism gave me the opportunity to talk to those people.”

At the end of the winter semester of 2020, Ndekezi took the plunge and officially joined The Gateway staff, and started taking on the big topics in earnest.

He remembers speaking with U of A business economist Andrew Leach about the Supreme Court challenge to the Liberals' carbon tax, and with U of A mythbuster Timothy Caulfield about Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop Lab. He went searching for the toll the pandemic was having on local businesses and dove into a piece unpacking some of the institutional failures regarding racism and anti-Black racism in Canada, the U.S. and universities in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

“I like the challenge of trying to fit everything together into a way that makes sense, but it's also still engaging,” he said. “The Gateway was maybe one of the more valuable experiences I had in terms of practical skills that I learned.

“A running joke among Gatewayers is that it’s an unofficial journalism degree.”

Ndekezi’s knack for recounting good stories may stem from his volunteer work over the years, visiting with seniors and hospital patients who otherwise wouldn’t have anyone stopping by.

“My brother had to volunteer in seniors’ homes near our house as a community service component for his high school. He really enjoyed the experience, so I started visiting residents there as well, whether it was talking, or bowling, playing chess or checkers.”

Ndekezi stopped for a couple of years, but in third year he felt like getting back into it. That’s when he signed up for the U of A Hospital’s Friendly Visitor Program.

“It is almost a similar experience to interviewing,” he said. “I’ve talked with monks, professional athletes, and people who have just lived these really rich lives and for one reason or another they're in the hospital right now.

“I think most people have a few incredible stories to share.”

Flourishing as journalist and scientist

And while his skills as a good person and journalist flourished, so did his skills as a scientist.

In both Ndekezi’s third and fourth years, he found himself participating in two separate research projects.

He did a semester-long research project under the supervision of Maya Evenden, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, working on a project to see whether mountain pine beetles can jump lodgepole pine forests in B.C. to jack pine forests in Alberta.

“I was measuring the body fat in mountain pine beetles to see how healthy they were when they made that jump,” said Ndekezi. “I learned some practical skills, which I liked.”

Next, the fledgling scientist took a full-year ecology course from Kimberley Mathot and JC Cahill that involved a kin recognition study looking at Arabidopsis, small flowering plants like the thale cress, to see whether plants can recognize their relatives “visually.”

“I would grow these plants next to mirrors and relatives to see how they would react to that,” said Ndekezi, who ran a small greenhouse in the biological sciences building for a study cut short by both the onset of COVID-19 and an unwelcome algal bloom.

“There was a difference between the plants that were grown beside mirrors and those that were grown beside foreign plants, and it was just on the cusp of significance, but if you don't make it across the line, you don't make it.”

And although Ndekezi said he fell in love with science and research, for his next chapter he is switching gears and will continue his skill acquisition thrust in the University of Victoria’s law program.

“I believe a legal education will allow me to take some of those writing skills, communication skills, and then turn it into a degree which would give me a lot of latitude with regard to things I'm interested in,” he said.

“Law seems like the path that would give me the most freedom.”