Abelline Fionah Navigates Being a Mother, While Pursuing Ph.D. in Chemistry

By Lindsey Piercy

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 30, 2022) — Throughout March for Women’s History Month, the University of Kentucky is spotlighting Women Making History. These women are leading their fields of research, crossing traditional academic boundaries and impacting Kentucky’s most pressing challenges, including opioid use disorder treatment, aging and Alzheimer’s, water and air filtration, environmental impacts on health and suicide prevention.  

They are mentoring the next generation of women scientists and scholars, curating stories and creating artworks illuminating who we are. Their work and voice shape the university.

On this “Wildcat Wednesday,” UK celebrates Abelline Fionah, a graduate student who is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry.  

Originally from Masindi, Uganda, Fionah was adopted at 9 years old.

As a young girl growing up in Muncie, Indiana, Fionah didn’t necessarily aspire to be a chemist. Instead, she had a mind for business.  

But life doesn’t always go according to plan.

“I was actually going into business administration at Ball State University. However, because I signed up late, all the business classes were filled. The other requirement was to take one science course, and the only one that was open was a chemistry class,” Fionah recalled. “I walked in and the first day, and there was a woman at the front of the classroom. All I remember thinking was, ‘this is a woman that is just doing her thing.’ She commanded so much respect. And that's how I got stuck in chemistry forever.”

Fast forward, Fionah has earned her bachelor’s, her master’s and is now at UK working to attain her doctorate from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Whether it’s capturing pollutants to purify drinking water or removing contaminants in viruses to filter air, chemists and engineers are working to find solutions to some of the world’s toughest environmental issues.

Fionah is part of a team of women at UK that is conducting leading-edge research in water and air filtration. “I absolutely love it. What excites me most about what I'm doing right now is the real-world application.”

While Fionah is passionate about science, she admits, being a woman in STEM is not without challenges.

“I have a supportive community around me. For example, I'm part of Alliance. It’s a group of individuals like me — underrepresented minorities in science who have a common goal,” she said. “Having a supportive community that you created, and you can fall back to and you're not afraid to cry to if things get hard. That's very important.”

Fionah’s UK family has proved to be invaluable, especially as she navigates school, two Fellowships (LSAMP Bridge to Doctorate NSF Fellowship, NRT INFEWS Fellowship) and being a mother.

“It’s amazing being a mom and being able to say, ‘I got my master's with a child and I'm going to get my Ph.D. with a child.’ But it's not easy,” Fionah said. “Choosing the right advisor is very important. There are people who want to help you succeed.”

In a recent edition of “Behind the Blue,” Fionah explains how Isabel Escobar, Ph.D., professor of chemical and materials engineering in the College of Engineering and National Governing Board Chair of the Association for Women in Science, serves as inspiration.

Fionah hopes to repay the favor by inspiring other women — including her daughter — to pursue their passion.

“Create your own pockets of opportunity where there is none or little, and no matter what you do, do not give up. The world keeps spinning whether you move with it or not, so make sure you are spinning alongside with it."

Look for more Women Making History stories, like Fionah’s, in UKNow on “Wildcat Wednesday” and every day on UK Research social media (@ResearchKY on Twitter and Facebook) throughout the month of March.