Young, African women scientists inspiring next peer group of innovators

Thursday March 31 2016

NEF women fellows with Rwandan President Paul

NEF women fellows with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Senegal’s President Mackay Sall in Dakar. The women are (from left) Amanda Weltman, Ghada Bassioni, Evelyn Gitau, Alta Schutte, Tolu Oni, Sherien Elagroudy. PHOTO | NEF 

By DOROTHY OTIENO

In 859 AD in Fez, Morocco, the University of Al-Qarawiyin was founded by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri. Al-Qarawiyin is believed to be the world’s first university, and it still exists today, more than 1,100 years later.

Al-Fihri may have made history for spearheading a model of higher learning, yet less than a third of researchers in Africa today are female, according to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

The ratios are worse when the research is sorted according to fields of expertise: Science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) constitute just 29 per cent of all research done in Africa.

It is for this reason that African and world leaders, policy makers, leading scientists and company executives from over 100 countries recently gathered for the inaugural Next Einstein Forum (NEF) in Dakar, Senegal. The leaders pledged to reach a target of 30 per cent women at the tertiary level by 2020, and increase the proportion to 40 per cent by 2025.

Among the delegates were six women scientists recognised for their groundbreaking innovations.

They are cellular immunologist Evelyn Gitau from Kenya, health medical specialist Tolu Oni from Nigeria, theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman and hypertension and heart disease specialist Alta Schutte, both from South Africa, and environmental engineer Sherien Elagroudy and chemistry researcher Ghada Bassioni, both from Egypt.

The women are part of a group 15 Next Einstein Forum fellows, a programme that recognises Africa’s best young scientists and technologists aged below 42.

Beneficiaries get a platform to advance their careers and inspire the next generation of African innovators.

The others are Uganda’s Noble Banadda (bioprocessing engineering); South Africa’s Mohlopheni Marakalala (TB research); Cameroon’s Axel Ngonga (semantic web technologies/big data); Ethiopia’s Komminist Weldermariam (software innovations for education); Senegal’s Joseph Ben Geloun (quantum properties/mathematical physics), Mouhamed Fall (mathematics) and Assane Gueye (cyber security); Cameroon’s Wilfred Ndifon (biological sciences) and Nigeria’s Hallowed Olaoluwa (mathematical physics).

According to Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister for Science and Technology, African countries must come up with progressive policies that address the challenges women face in science and technology.

“Discrimination and prejudice are unscientific and so they must be addressed in science,” said Ms Pandor, adding that there is a need to close the gender gap in science.

Ms Pandor shared her disappointment upon learning that only one of the 16 heads of the centres of excellence established in her country was a woman, when she was first appointed as minister.

She then created 43 research chairs targeting women. She told of how her staff had dissuaded her against the move, pointing out that there were not enough qualified women in the country to fill the posts. She, however, went ahead to advertise the positions and to her delight, 84 women met the basic qualifications.

“There are women in science. We just choose to make them invisible,” she said.

The first comprehensive global survey of women’s representation in science academy membership, governance and activities found that only 12 per cent of the members of 69 national science academies are women.

The study, released in February, found that mathematics had the lowest representation of women as academy members, with six per cent in mathematical sciences, and five per cent in engineering.

In 30 of those academies, the share of women members was 10 per cent or less. These included Tanzania (four per cent), Kenya (seven per cent) and Uganda (13 per cent), according to the report by Global Network of Science Academies and the Academy of Science of South Africa.

The report recommends data collection and reporting on gender, and permanent structures to implement gender-mainstreaming activities in academia.

The representation of women in the Cuban Academy of Sciences, which had the largest share of women, was 27 per cent, almost four times as large as Kenya’s and almost seven times as large as Tanzania’s.

Women are “best” represented in the social sciences, humanities and arts, at 16 per cent of all members in these disciplines followed by the biological sciences (15 per cent) and the medical and health sciences (14 per cent).

Overall, the average share of women on the governing body was lowest, at 17 per cent, for the subset of national academies admitting members in all disciplines, compared with 20 per cent for academies admitting members only in the pure natural or physical sciences.

While two of 14, or 14 per cent of Kenya’s National Science Academy governing body members are women, the ratio is one in 11 or nine per cent in Uganda and one in six or 17 per cent in Tanzania.

The National Academy of Sciences in the US at 47 per cent, together with two European academies in Switzerland and Sweden, both at 47 per cent, have the best representation of women as members of the governing body.

Scientists at the NEF forum recommended that more awards that acknowledge the contribution of women in Stem be established in order to raise their profile.

NEF female fellows:

Evelyn Gitau

As a student at Kenya High School in Nairobi, Evelyn Gitau used to spend a good amount of her free time in the chemistry lab of the University of Nairobi where her friend’s father worked.

After completing her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, she was selected to join the inaugural class of medicine at Moi University, in the Rift Valley. She, however, opted for chemistry and later worked in the field of cellular immunology at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri)-Wellcome Trust Research Programme.

According to Ms Gitau, mentorship and making science practical are important ingredients for attracting girls to the field.

“I did not have women in my field to look up to when I started my career, but I had positive male role models,” said Ms Gitau, who was awarded a PhD in cellular immunology at the age of 27 by the Open University UK, in collaboration with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Ms Gitau is part of a mentorship programme in the counties of Mombasa, Kwale, Taita and Kilifi on Kenya’s Coast, where girls in Standard Six at the primary level are paired up with high school girls in Form Three, and challenged to come up with an innovation that benefits their communities.

“I recently mentored a duo who came up with a water purifying system that uses solar energy. One girl’s grandmother helped them persuade people in their community to try their invention,” she said.

Ms Gitau was recently appointed a programme manager at the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) programme of the African Academy of Science. She is responsible for implementing the Grand Challenges Africa initiative, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and of which AESA is a partner.

The NEF fellow hopes to develop an alternative cheap, point-of-care clinical management diagnostic kit for malnourished children.

Amanda Weltman

Amanda Weltman is biased towards fundamental science, a rare field on the continent since most research is in applied science — such as finding solutions to food insecurity. Fundamental science is driven by curiosity.

Ms Weltman said her love of solving problems led her to theoretical physics.

She is best known for proposing the Chameleon field — a particle that could be responsible for causing the observed accelerated expansion of the universe.

Her current research seeks to explain the two greatest unknown components of our universe — dark energy and dark matter. It has created new research subfields in cosmology and experimental physics.

“It is ok to fail in science because it gets us much closer to the solution,” she said.

Ms Weltman completed her PhD at Colombia University in the US in 2007. She served as an elected member of the South African Young Academy of Sciences in 2014/2015, and was involved in founding the mathematics blog Mathemafrica.org. She works with the New York Academy of Sciences on the Clinton Global Initiative, “1,000 Girls and 1,000 Futures.”

Tolu Oni

Tolu Oni earned her doctoral research degree in 2012 from the Imperial College in London. She is currently working on establishing the Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (Riche), a platform that seeks to address complex public health challenges through a co-ordinated and inter-sectoral partnership between academia, civil society and government.

Alta Schutte

Alta Schutte is the principal investigator of the African-Predict study, which hopes to track young healthy individuals for the next 20 years using the latest medical technology, in the hope of discovering early predictors for hypertension.

She obtained her doctorate degree at the age of 24 from the North-West University’s Potchefstroom campus in South Africa. She hopes to turn around the upward trend in hypertension cases in Africa.

Sherien Elagroudy

Sherien Elagroudy was recognised by the L’Oreal-Unesco Fellowship for Women in Science in 2013, and was honoured as a young scientist at the World Economic Forum in China the same year. A fellow of the Global Young Academy as well as a steering committee member of Egypt’s Young Academy of Science, she holds a PhD from Ryerson University in Egypt.

Ms Elagroudy is currently engaged in several research grants of more than $3.5 million in the fields of solid waste management, biochemical waste treatment technologies and waste to energy projects. She hopes to transform waste into new products.

Ghada Bassioni

Although Dr Ghada Bassioni works on a continent that contributes only two per cent of global research publications, she has over 50 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings.

Dr Bassioni who was awarded a PhD by the Technische Universität München TUM, in Munich, Germany, hopes to use interdisciplinary approaches to solve societal challenges like fresh water supply.

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