Female scientists are taking up space and cementing themselves

What does a scientist nowadays look like?

When the word ‘scientist’ is mentioned, what image is painted in your mind? Is there a particular gender that comes to mind? Colour? If you referenced famous sci-fi blockbusters I’m certain you would conclude that scientists are white men with crazy hair.

Unfortunately, this imagery traverses to reality too (excluding the crazy hair?). If you browse through the physics Nobel Laureates and the NRF A-rated researchers you would be convinced that science has a preference when it comes to gender or race. A glimpse of hope was resurrected when I watched the film ‘Hidden figures’. We exist and our contributions are valid!

The Event Horizon Telescope captured the very first image of a black hole in April 2019. This was a huge milestone in the field of Astronomy and Physics and it was exciting to see that a female researcher was also at the forefront of this achievement. Katie Bouman was the lead computer scientist of the team that created the algorithm that made the breakthrough image possible.

Dr Hadiyah-Nicole Green was also in the news for pioneering the use of laser-activated nanoparticles for cancer treatment. This breakthrough method of treatment has been found to improve the pharmacokinetics and reduce the systemic toxicities of chemotherapies through the selective targeting and delivery of these anticancer drugs to tumour tissues.

Indeed, no longer shall we remain hidden figures. In the famous words of Zozibini Tunzi, current Miss Universe, ‘We are taking up space and cementing ourselves’. But how do we ensure that this movement is not only restricted to first world countries or big cities?

 As of December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly resolved that the 11th of February would be recognized as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Initiatives like these are excellent tools for showcasing brilliant achievements of female scientists. In South Africa, we also have initiatives such as: Take a girl child to work, South African Women in Science and, L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in science to name a few. These initiatives have done wonders in exposing young girls to science careers and acknowledging excellent female researchers, but is it enough?

Dr Busiswa Ndaba and me

According to the United Nations reports still only 30% of researches worldwide are women. In South Africa, an impressive 40% of women are in STEMI fields. The NRF boasts itself for funding more than 50% of females researchers and postgrad and postdoctoral level. These are amazing statistics in comparison to other countries. However, the NRF also reports that approximately 6% of these female researchers are in senior technical or managerial positions. I believe that currently, this is the major challenge to transformation in the science field in South Africa. What makes female researchers leave academia? What hinders female research from being NRF-rated scientists? It is only when we are able to tackle these questions that we will achieve equal gender representation in all spheres.

From my personal academic journey and interactions with students through education outreach activities, these are some of the factors that stood out for me:

The most important factor is that one cannot become what their mind cannot conceive. Quality education for all is essential, we cannot be encouraging learners to be chemists when lab equipment is nothing but theory to them.  In as much as South Africa has all these great initiatives they mostly target schools in urban areas, we need them to spread even to the most isolated schools in rural areas. It was promising to hear the minister of finance, in the 2020 budget speech, mention an allocated budget for introducing robotics at elementary school.

With Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland

From a young age, we (especially girls) are taught to fear science (I still tremble at the memory of my High School physics teacher). Most high school students I interact with hate Maths and Physics, mainly because of how they are taught in school. Our society often tells girls that science ‘is not for them’. We need to change the stigma around science. Science is a fun, inclusive and creative subject, it is as cool as art, and hence it should be portrayed as such.

As a country, we need to be intentional when it comes to transformation. Women need to be in key decision making positions, drive policies that will lead to change. It is only women that know what is best for women. However, it is also essential that male colleagues are part of the dialogue. If we want to make academic spaces safe spaces for women, men need to be aware of the required behavioural changes and to be conscious of how diversity is not a threat but a conducive environment for success.

Giving back to our communities

The same way we find and feel that mentors are important to us just like Munira discussed in her August blog, I believe that we should do the same for others. Like I also mentioned in my August blog about the importance of finding a support system that will motivate and support us, I also said that after we have found that support system, we should go out there and be someone else’s support system.

I didn’t realize how much of a difference I could make to young kids’ lives until this year when I was more involved in community work. All the previous years I always dedicated some of my time to volunteer work in terms of mentorship programs or open days for high school learners but none of these ever required me to interact with these learners after that one event. This year I made a conscious decision to participate in the efforts of Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, and was actively involved in some of their expos.

Nkathutho

Nka’Thuto is a non-profit organization that was established in 2016 with the objective to spark interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers amongst learners. There is a 7 tier process that is followed that the learners are involved in, the first process is the Activation stage. During this stage, the organization goes to various schools and encourage learners to find problems in their communities. The second process in the programme is the workshop stage. This stage teaches the learners about how to go about conducting research and finding solutions to the problems they have identified in their community. The third is the consultation stage, the learners are giving an opportunity to consult with mentors about their ideas. Thereafter, the internal school level Innovation Expo happens where learners compete amongst their peers. A computer skills workshop is also offered to the learners. The winners of the school level expo then compete in the final innovation expo with other learners from different schools and provinces. The winners from the final expo then proceed to the Entrepreneurship expo pitching competition.

I was involved in the internal school level and the final innovation expos. The feeling that comes with being part of such initiatives is beyond satisfying. Getting the opportunity to interact with the learners, not only about their science projects but also their future plans are just remarkable. Leading up to the final expo round, they invited me to a mentorship session to help the learners prepare for the finals. I was happy to see a whole lot of familiar faces from the previous expos. I was especially ecstatic to have two learners who insisted on having a consultation with me since I was their judge during their school level expo. They were happy to show me that they have implemented my suggestions and wanted to know if there was more I could suggest from what they have done. On the day of the final expo, I made it a point of mine to go have a look at their board and I was truly impressed with the effort they made in improving from their last expo. This was clearly an indication that they were there to learn.

What I am trying to say is that I really believe it is important that us as postgraduate students should be the mentors that we would like for ourselves. The same way we would like mentors to guide and support us, we should also pass this on to others younger than us. Not everyone has the opportunity to meet people who are in the same career path they would like to follow. Take me for example, I did not know that one can have a career in Physics when I was still in High School. So now I make it a point to let the younger learners know that it is possible to have a career apart from the typical careers that they are aware of. During the expo sessions I judged in, I asked most of them what they wanted to do when they finished school. It was interesting because I got a variety of answers ranging from software engineering to being doctors. What gave them hope was that I would even tell them that I knew a couple of people who were in the same career field as their interests.

Nkathutho1

We have a whole generation of young people who are smart that just need mentors to guide them in the right direction. We are part of this generation that needs mentors but let us not forget those younger than us.  We are the mentors that they need, want and should have. We should give more of our time to encourage, motivate and mentor these learners. Let us be their role models, someone for them to look up to and aspire to become.

I am not saying that everyone should start a foundation or organization that helps learners from our communities, from what I have heard, it’s a lot of work. What I am however saying is that if you do come across a foundation or organization that is looking for volunteers, volunteer your time. There is more to giving back to the community than volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting old age homes and orphanages. Sometimes sharing our knowledge and skills can go a long way in making a difference in someone else’s life. The learners are really looking for someone to inspire and give them hope, be that light at the end of their High School tunnel.