Could one of these young African women scientists be the next Einstein?


Could one of these young African women scientists be the next Einstein?

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

A Moroccan woman may have founded the first university in the world that still exists today in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco, but less than a third of researchers in Africa are women, according to data from UNESCO.

When organised by fields of research, the representation is even lower. Nation Newsplex found that science, technology engineering and math (STEM) constitute just 29 per cent of all research done in Africa.

It was this dismal record that led African and world leaders, policymakers, leading scientists and company executives from over 100 countries to the first global gathering of scientists in Africa in Dakar, Senegal, to commit to prioritising the enrolment of women in STEM programmes at tertiary level.

The leaders pledged to target 30 per cent women at the tertiary level by 2020, and increase the proportion to 40 per cent by 2025.

Among the hundreds of delegates who took part in the forum that was held in Dakar, Senegal, were six women scientists under the age of 42, elected for their ground-breaking work.

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Next Einstein Fellows (from left) Amanda Weltan, Ghada Bassioni, Evelyn Gitau, Atta Shutte, Tolu Oni and Sherien Elagroudy. PHOTO | DOROTHY OTIENO| NATION MEDIA CROUP|  

Cellular immunologist Evelyn Gitau from Kenya, public health specialist Tolu Oni from Nigeria, theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman and hypertension & heart disease specialist Alta Schutte both from South Africa, environmental engineer Sherien Elagroudy and chemistry scientist Ghada Bassioni from Egypt are six of 15 Next Einstein Fellows whose work in science took centre stage at the first ever Next Einstein Forum (NEF).

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

Having chosen careers in the four fields of science – STEM – the young scientists are walking a career path less travelled by women on the continent. So how have they managed to achieve so much so early in life?

As a student at Kenya High School Evelyn looked forward to spending her free time at the chemistry lab at the University of Nairobi where her best friend’s father was the head of Chemistry department.

She told Newsplex this inspired her to study Chemistry at university even though she had been selected for the inaugural medicine class at Moi University. It also led her to work in the field of cellular immunology at the Kemri -Wellcome Trust Programme Kenya.

Perhaps because of the overwhelming socio-economic problems facing Africa, most research on the continent is in applied science, research that focuses on finding solutions to particular problems e.g. food insecurity, rather than fundamental science, which is driven by curiosity.

PLAYGROUND OF THE UNIVERSE

Amanda, who has spent her life work involved in fundamental research is therefore a rare breed of scientist. Her current research focus is on explaining and observing the two greatest unknown components of our universe, dark energy and dark matter.

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Cellular immunologist Evelyn Gitau. PHOTO | PHILIPPE BARBOSA| COURTESY
Cellular immunologist Evelyn Gitau. PHOTO | PHILIPPE BARBOSA| COURTESY

“It is ok to fail in science because it gets us so much closer to the solution,” says the first woman in South Africa to be a math or physics research chair. Her love of solving problems led her to the playground of the universe, 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 while also causing interesting, unexpected local and solar system physical effects that could be observed in purpose-built experiments.

“Discrimination and prejudice are unscientific and so it must be addressed in science.” 

Her work has created new research subfields in cosmology and experimental physics. She completed a PhD at Colombia University in the US in 2007.

Both Evelyn and Amanda say that mentorship and making science practical are important ingredients to attracting girls to study science. “I did not have women in my field to look up to when I started my career but I had positive male role models including my PhD supervisor and my husband,” says Evelyn who at the age of 27 was awarded a PhD in cellular immunology by the Open University UK in collaboration with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

She often wonders whether her career would have taken a different path had she not had a great chemistry teacher in high school and opportunity to explore in a well-equipped chemistry lab.

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Theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman. PHOTO | PHILIPPE BARBOSA| COURTESY

Despite their hectic careers the two NEF fellows are passionate about education and giving a helping hand to girls who are seeking to follow in their footsteps. Amanda served as an elected member of the South African Young Academy of Sciences (SAYAS) for 2014/2015, and was involved in founding the multi-blogger, multilingual mathematics blog Mathemafrica.org.

She is currently working with the New York Academy of Sciences on the Clinton Global Initiative, “1000 Girls, and 1000 Futures”.

Evelyn is involved in a mentorship program in the counties of Mombasa, Kwale, Taita and Kilifi, where girls in class six are paired up with girls in Form Three and challenged to work on an innovation to take to their communities.
“I recently mentored a duo who came up with a way to purify water using solar. One girl’s grandmother helped them to convince people in their community to try their invention. I could see that the Standard Six pupil was picking up the science faster than her high school teammate,” she says.

Evelyn was recently appointed a programme manager at the African Academy of Science – Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) where she is responsible for the implementation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported Grand Challenges Africa initiative, in which AESA is a partner.

EARLY PREDICTORS

Evelyn hopes to develop cheap, point-of-care diagnostic methods that can better stratify malnourished children, to inform on alternative clinical management for those that remain at risk of death due to infection despite nutritional rehabilitation.

Also working in the areas of public health are NEF fellows Tolu and Alta. Tolu, who earned her her doctoral research degree in 2012 from the Imperial College in London, is working on establishing the Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (RICHE), a platform to address complex public health challenges through a coordinated and inter-sectoral partnership between academia, civil society and government.

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Public health specialist Tolu Oni. PHOTO | CLEMENT TARDIF| COURTESY
Public health specialist Tolu Oni. PHOTO | CLEMENT TARDIF| COURTESY

Alta is the principal investigator of the African-PREDICT study aiming to track young healthy individuals for the next 20 years using the latest medical technology in the field, thereby hoping to discover early predictors for the development of hypertension. Alta, who obtained her Doctorate degree at the age of 24 from Potchefstroom University, hopes to turnaround the upward trend in hypertension development in Africa.

According to South Africa’s Minister for Science and Technology, Ms Naledi Pandor, African countries must also come up with progressive policies that address the challenges women face in science and technology. “Discrimination and prejudice are unscientific and so it must be addressed in science,” she says.

ONLY QUALIFIED WOMEN

Ms Pandor knows all too well the difference policy makers reducing the gender gap in science. When she was first appointed to her current post she was disappointed to learn that only one of the 16 heads of the Centres of Excellence established in her country was led by women. To remedy the situation, she created 43 research chairs and decreed that only qualified women should apply.

At first her staff told her there were not enough qualified women in the country to fill the posts but when she insisted there were, they advertised the posts.

In the end 84 women met the basic qualifications. “There are women in science. We just choose to make them invisible,” she says. One in four of South Africa's professors (552 out of 1,640) are women, according to data from South Africa’s Department of Higher Education.

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Hypertension and heart disease specialist Alta Shutte. PHOTO | PHILIPPE BARBOSA| COURTESY

The first comprehensive global survey of science academies that investigated women's global 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 this year, 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 sciences. In 30 of those academies, the share of women members was ten per cent or less, including 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 times larger than Kenya’s and almost seven times as large as Tanzania’s.

YOUNG ACADEMY OF SCIENCE

Women are ‘best’ represented in the social sciences, humanities and arts with 16 per cent of all members in these disciplines across all science academies being women, 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 to 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 United States at 47 per cent, together with two European academies in Switzerland and Sweden, both 47 per cent, have the best representation of women as members of the governing body.

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Environmental engineer Sherien Elagroudy. PHOTO | CLEMENT TARDIFF| COURTESY

Other scientists at the NEF forum recommended the established of more awards that acknowledge the contribution of women in STEM to raise their profile. Indeed many NEF fellows said that the recognition they had received over the years inspired them to greater heights.

For instance, Sherien’s work was recognised with the L’Oreal UNESCO Fellowship for Women in Science in 2013, and she was honoured as a young scientist at the World Economic Forum in China in 2013. 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 Canada.

Sherien, who 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, hopes to transform waste materials into new materials or products, towards the upper end of the innovation scale.

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Chemistry scientist Ghada Bassioni. PHOTO | PHILIPPE BARBOSA| COURTESY

Although she works in a continent which contributes on two per cent of research publications Ghada has over 50 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings.

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