Ndonkeu Tita Walter graduated in 2008 with a PhD in natural resource sciences, focusing on entomology and pest management. He is currently a Professor at Earth University, teaching courses in pest management and entomology.
Q: My first question is what made you interested in starting a PhD in natural resource sciences at McGill?
I was doing my Master’s in Belgium, so I applied to come to Canada as an immigrant. Before I arrived, I wanted to pursue my education, so I was looking for potential schools and came across McGill, and I looked at professors with research similar to my interests. When I arrived in Canada, I spoke to the professors I had found, and one of them recommended me to Professor Gary Dunphy, who did research I was interested in and had funding.
Q: So you were able to get funding for the PhD program?
Yes, I had a grant, and the grant through my supervisor. I also applied for loans and bursaries.
Q: Can you talk more about the mentorship and other kinds of support? Who were your most important mentors during your PhD?
I had two supervisors: Gary Dunphy was at Macdonald, and Craig Mandato was in cell biology downtown, so I met less with him. Of course, we had challenges; those of us in grad school had tough times, especially since I was coming from a different background. But Gary helped; he pushed me to do the work, maybe sometimes too much, but then again, in grad school, you also push yourself. On a personal side, he really helped me. Like I said, I moved to Canada as an immigrant, alone before my family joined me. And he helped me and gave me advice, both before and when my family came. At the end of the day, it was all for my own good. And I’m still in contact with Gary; we communicate, we collaborate.
Q: Were there opportunities for you to mentor anyone?
I was a TA for many courses, but the people who benefited most from my mentorship were immigrants, especially from my country, who were looking for opportunities to get into grad schools. So I gave advice about the system, the kinds of things they could apply for, and how to study at a university in Canada. I mentored a lot of immigrants from my country.
Q: Is there any mentorship that you wish you had?
Maybe more to do with family integration; as an immigrant, I don’t think we got enough information on how to integrate into the system. I wish I had someone with the same background who could say, “Okay, you got into this area—these are the challenges you might face, the things you can do to better adapt.” That kind of personalized mentorship was a bit lacking.
Q: What about experiences outside of your program? What helped you during graduate school?
A good community and friends. In Montreal, we’re about eight thousand Cameroonians. I was very involved in the community—at times, I was the secretary-general, the president of the football club, coach of the football club, a main social organizer. So I had a lot of good friends, all over Canada. That was really, really positive.
Q: What were the biggest challenges in finishing the PhD? What helped you overcome those challenges?
The first one was finding my feet in the PhD program, because my project was really challenging. I almost gave up in the first year. I would come to the lab at 5am, and the lab doesn’t have a closing time. It took me almost a year, I was almost giving up, and then finally the magic happened.
The second challenge was bringing my family to Canada and studying. My wife was studying as well, and we already had two kids; it was not easy. We managed more or less through time management; we really had to sit down and organize, like I’d go early to the lab so I could leave early so that I could take care of the kids when she went to school. And my supervisor helped a lot; he was very understanding. And sometimes we’d ask for help from the community or from friends, so even though it was really challenging, with proper planning and cooperation, it worked out.
Q: Can you tell us about your current position? How did your path lead to Costa Rica?
When I finished my PhD, I did a postdoc for close to 5 years. Toward the end of the grants, I wanted something different. But this position in Costa Rica was not something I was expecting: I came home one evening, sitting on the couch, and then I saw the announcement on the American society of entomology. Out of curiosity, I figured, I had nothing to lose, let me apply. Two weeks later I was sent an email, we had a Skype interview, then I came to Costa Rica for the on-campus interview, and I was selected.
The challenge here is that I teach in Spanish, and I came here with zero Spanish. Zero. But they really liked my profile and thought they’d take a chance, so they brought me over for four months before the beginning of the course so that I could do some language courses. And after four months, I was ready to teach the class.
Q: What connections are there between your current and past work?
My PhD was on entomology and pest management, which is what I teach here. And I’m an agronomist, and this university is an agriculture university. So with a background in agronomy, an MSc in nematology, and now a PhD in entomology…the only deviation that doesn’t directly help was my postdoc on parasitology, but it gives me a lot of capacity to think as a professional.
Q: My last question is if you could go back in time and give yourself advice about the PhD, what would it be? Any final reflections on your path?
When I came to McGill, I was looking for a PhD because I already had a Master’s from Belgium. But then, my supervisor told me that he could not accept me directly to the PhD program, because he didn’t really know my strengths. But, he could allow me to come for another Master’s if I wanted. And then after one year, if my performance is good, then he would bring me into the PhD program.
So of course, I had no problem with that. I thought, grab it as an opportunity. I don’t want to see myself doing odd jobs, call center jobs, so I say, better I take this opportunity and go for it.
After the first year, he told me, OK, you’re doing fine, so we can upgrade. But I said no. I would prefer to have two Master’s degrees because then in my mind, maybe it would be easier for me to get into the job market.
Then, in the second year, he called me again and offered me another option, to transfer into the PhD program so that I wouldn’t have to start from year one. I thought about it: I had been in Canada for two years, and the job market was not as I was expecting it to be; things were not coming along easily. So I accepted the offer, submitted my file, got through the comprehensive exam. And then two years more and I got the PhD.
Many thanks to Ndonkeu Tita for sharing his narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn and at Earth University.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.