Against All Odds – #AfricanWomenInScience

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White Rhinos in Lake Nakuru National Park, 2015

 

It is estimated that there are only about 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild in Africa – making the black rhino right up on the top of the CRITICALLY endangered species list. In comparison, there are about 20,000 white rhinos left in the wild with the largest population of these being in South Africa. Against all odds the white rhino population has been “revamped” due to concerted efforts and the loud conservationist voices crying out SAVE THE RHINO! By 1993, the black rhino population had declined by about 96%, and again, against all odds that number has risen to ~5,000 in the recent few years. Even more interesting, against all odds the Southern white rhino was saved from the brink of extinction where we had only about 50 surviving in the wild at one time to the current numbers. Surely against all odds – one can rise from the ashes as a phoenix and break all barriers and the proverbial glass ceiling.

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A white and black rhino in Lake Nakuru National Park, 2015.

Why am I talking about endangered species when this is meant to be all about #AfricanWomenInScience?

Well if we don’t raise our voices and cry out, even more loudly, the endangered species that is the African Woman Scientist too will be on the brink of extinction. We need to have concerted efforts and our very own “conservationist voices” to cry out and speak about increasing the population of the female scientist on this our beloved continent.

According to UNESCO, only 30% of women are in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Sub-Saharan Africa (data and statistics available for up to October 2015 – refer to link below). If you see the breakdown of these by country, you will realise that no one country comes close to the 50% mark (Figure 1). Let’s take my own home country Zambia for instance. According to data for 2008, only 30% of the total head count of researches in that year were female. I won’t even sound the alarm as to why the only available data is almost 9 years old. How do we beat the odds and ensure that we have equal representation of gender when it comes to STEM in Africa? But this problem is not unique to Africa and world over there seems to be a lag in the numbers of women in STEM with only a few countries ensuring that they #MindTheGap.

 

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Figure 1. Female researchers as a percentage of the total of reseachers in the listed African countries. Adapted from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics Women in Science Fact Sheet N0.34, dated November 2015

 

Notwithstanding, there have been a number of female trailblazers in the science field in Africa who ought to be part of our history lessons and in our mind-sets. A good example for instance is Cleopatra infamous Queen of Egypt. Yes famous for her milk baths and astonishing beauty – would very well fit with the Tim Hunt #DistractinglySexy – but less for her intelligence. Cleopatra was apparently a mathematician, chemist and philosopher. Some literature1 claim that she wrote her scientific thoughts and work and held meetings with other experts in her areas of expertise. Which in the modern day world would be classified as journal articles (possible published in high impact journals) and lab meetings in the form of journal clubs and seminars.

Closer to our millennium is another Egyptian great mind, Sameera Moussa a nuclear scientist, who against all odds became a first in more ways than one – first woman in her university to hold a post, first woman in Egypt to obtain a PhD in atomic radiation. She pursued research into the use of nuclear technology for medical treatment. She pioneered the International Atomic Energy for Peace Conference amongst others – “Atoms for Peace”.

But let us talk about #ActualLivingScientists

Straight up in my mind – Adriana Marais a young South African theoretical physicist with research interests in quantum biology (yes you read right) who is an Astronaut Candidate for the Mars One Project (http://www.adrianamarais.org/). The African Union in partmership with the European Union recently announced the Kwame Nkrumah Regional Awards for women in science 2016. Five women from varius STEM fields were awarded: Prof. Jane Catherine Ngila (Kenya): Analytical-Environmental Chemistry; Dr. Lamia Chaari Fourati (Tunisia): Multimedia and Computer Science; Associate Prof. Celia Abolnik (South Africa): Avian Respiratory Viruses; Prof. Rokia Sanogo (Mali): Pharmacognosy; and Prof. Olu-Owolabi Bamidele (Nigeria): Analytical-Environmental Chemistry. The Planet Earth Institute also recognised 5 women in the top 10 heroes of science in Africa for 2016 with the list comprising of: President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Mauritius): Biodiversity Scientist; Professor Maggy Momba (Congo DR, South Africa): Microbiologist; Dr Eunice Ubomba-Jaswa (South Africa): Microbiologist; Brittany Bull and Sesam Mngqengqiswa (South Africa): 17 and 16 year olds spearheading the launch of Africa’s first private satellite into space in 2017.

We need to sing more the song of our African women in STEM.

Let #AfricanWomenInScience not just be another hashtag but a reality for us to celebrate and honour every African woman in our day to day life in science. Shout it out from the roof-top so that every young and up and coming female scientist can follow that dream loud and proud.

Maybe we can learn one thing or two from the rhino conservationists. What has been there strategy to ensure that against all odds the number of endangered species are brought up again? Well, it’s been about engagement, engagement, engagement, and engagement along with other activities. Let’s take for instance the Save The Rhino Programmes. These have been centered around engaging and educating local and international stakeholders on the importance of rhino conservation and speaking out against poaching. A great cry for all is that we begin from the lowest level of the education strata on the importance of STEM for the girl child and the role that women before us have played in making STEM what it is today. We need to celebrate the pioneering women in STEM and let them have their place on the plaques, on the street posts, and in the books. So that even my 11 year old will see that she too can be an astronaut, a nuclear scientist, or a quantum physicist right here in Africa. Because she has been enlightened about the likes of Adriana Marais and Sameera Moussa. And more importantly that Queen Cleopatra was beauty and brains and not just #DressLikeAWoman.

Let us #ChangeTheNumbers – TOGETHER……….

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Proud #AfricanWomanInScience culturing Plasmodium falciparum malaria gametocytes in a lab in Thailand, 2016.

 

 

1Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings by Okasha El Daly Illustrated Edition, Psychology Press, 2005.

You can read all about the work of Save The Rhino from https://www.savetherhino.org/

And of course some useful links for you to follow up on – let us celebrate our African sisters in STEM

http://discov-her.com/en/article/flying-the-flag-for-african-women-in-science

http://ayibamagazine.com/five-african-female-scientists-you-should-definitely-know-about/

http://changethenumbers.science/

http://www.aawse.org/index.php

http://planetearthinstitute.org.uk/six-inspirational-women-making-their-mark-in-stem/

http://www.uis.unesco.org/ScienceTechnology/Documents/fs34-2015-women%20in%20science-en.pdf

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