5 women scientists tell their stories of hard-earned success
Winners of the Elsevier Foundation Awards for Women Scientists in the Developing World overcome major challenges in their pursuit of math and physics
By Alison Bert, Editor-in-Chief Posted on 23 February 2015
Growing up in a tribal village in Vietnam, Dang Thi Oanh lived in a house with a roof made of leaves and no electricity. Motivated by more than a passion for learning, she would study by the light of an oil lamp:
I had to escape the hunger and poverty. If you study, you don't have to work on the farm; you have don't have to gather dry wood in the jungle (to burn for heat and cooking).
Dr. Oanh, now Head of the Division of Science-Technology and International Cooperation at Thái Nguyên University of Information and Communications Technology, was one of five winners of the 2015 Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World. They took the stage last week at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, California, sharing their stories and stressing the need to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and math.
In the media
Four of the winners were interviewed by National Public Radio (NPR). Read the article: "Tough As Nails: Female Scientists Rise Up in Nigeria."
The awards are presented annually in conjunction with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and TWAS, the World Academy of Sciences to recognize the accomplishments of five early-career scientists. This year's award was for physics and mathematics.
The prize included $5,000 and all-expenses paid attendance at the AAAS meeting. In addition, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), based in Trieste, Italy, offered each of the winners' free attendance and accommodation at one of its workshops or conferences.
An additional $2,500 for each winner was donated by Martha Darling, a retired Boeing executive, and husband Professor Gil Omenn, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics at the University of Michigan and past president of AAAS. "These women are inspirational," Darling said after the ceremony. "They're doing significant research, mentoring their students, and helping to create stronger institutions in their countries."
The recipients – from Nigeria, Sudan and Vietnam – all said the award money will go a long way to helping them pursue their research and help their students build careers. Afterwards, they told their stories to a reporter from NPR. Even though they have succeeded to become professors and researchers, two of their universities only have electricity for four hours a day, and while they are invited to present their work at international conferences, often they cannot afford to go.
Here, they tell more of their stories.
"If you study, you don't have to work on the farm"
Dr. Oanh grew up in northern Vietnam, her family among the Tay people. She was one of 12 children, though just seven ultimately survived.
Her mentor was her older sister, who was a high school mathematics teacher. She went to a state university for tribal people for a year before transferring to other universities in Hanoi for her information technology and mathematics training.
She earned her PhD in 2012 from the Institute of Information Technology at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, and is now on the faculty of Thái Nguyên University.
[pullquote align="right"]"Mentoring encouraged me to continue to do research and develop the method I'm working on."[/pullquote]
Dr. Oanh, a mother of two, is also becoming a mentor and advisor to some PhD students at her university. "It's very important to me because (mentoring) encouraged me to continue to do research and develop the method I'm working on," she said.
She received the Elsevier Foundation Award for improvements the accuracy and efficiency of some computer-based methods to solving some difficult problems in calculus. Her work has potential applications in fields such as artificial intelligence and computer graphics.
At AAAS, she was joined by Dr. Paul "Do-Le" Minh, Professor of Information Systems and Management Sciences at California State University, Fullerton, who met her at a conference in Vietnam and became her mentor.
Pursuing a fascination with the universe beyond Sudan
Dr. Nashwa Eassa was born near Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Her father was a teacher, and all six of her siblings graduated from college.
Her own interest in science stemmed from her curiosity about the world when she was in high school:
I started getting interested in the universe and what it was about. I was just so curious to know.
She excelled. But when it came to choosing her major in college, she took a different path than the other top students.
"If you have high marks, you go to medicine or engineering; if you have low marks you go to science," she said, explaining that the best jobs are in engineering and medicine.
With her grades, she could have chosen that path with higher pay, but instead, she followed her passion and studied physics. She earned Master of Science in Material Physics and Nanotechnology from Linkoping University in Sweden and a PhD in Physics from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in South Africa.
Now, she is Assistant Professor of Physics at Al Neelain University in Khartoum, and she is pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship in nanophotonics at NMMU.
Her current research focuses on development of titanium oxide nanoparticles and nanotubes structures. She won the Elsevier Foundation award for her research in nanoparticle physic, exploring ways to lessen the film that accumulates on the surface of a high-speed semiconductor, interfering with the flow of electrical current. She is also involved in a project developing methods for using solar radiation to treat water and for splitting water molecules so that hydrogen can be collected.
Two years ago, she founded the organization Sudanese Women in Science. With more than 100 members now, they aim help women become more effective scientists by teaching them to write scientific proposals and papers. In addition, they have established a cross-disciplinary team in chemistry, physics and biology to work on water treatment projects to purify the region's drinking water.
In Nigeria, encouraging young women to stay in science
Dr. Mojisola Usikalu was born in a small town in Southwest Nigeria. Her father died when she was 6 years old, and her mother raised the family on her income as a school teacher with support from her brothers.
Dr. Usikalu became interested in science when she was in secondary school.
"I had a very good female physics teacher who mentored me and encouraged me to go into physics," she said.
She taught in secondary school to earn the money to complete her master's degree.
In graduate school, she developed an interest in radiation and health physics. With scholarships from TWOWS (now OWSD)to do research at the Institute of Modern Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou, China, she earned a PhD degree at Covenant University in Ota, Nigeria.
"I knew that what we give to the environment is what we get – that health and the environment are related," she explained.
Now, as Senior Lecturer in Physics at Covenant University, she researches the effects of radiation from the environment, including microwave radiation, ionizing radiation and radiation from mobile phones.
She received the Elsevier Foundation award for research on how radiation affects health, finding that exposure to microwave radiation, for example, could increase anxiety and reduce sperm counts in animals. She is also active in promoting physics in Nigeria, participating in programs to guide young women into studying university-level physics:
Many of my female students who had plans of stopping after their first degree are now considering perusing a degree in science after working with me. Once they see me as someone who has achieved something, so they are encouraged by my success, and I also encourage them that they can achieve success in science by dedication, determination and hard work.
A Nigerian physicist on becoming visible
Dr. Rabia Sa'id grew up in a polygamist family, which is legal in parts of Nigeria; her father and two mothers had 10 children but lost three of them.
With her father a soldier, she attended an Army school, finishing at the top of her class. "If you were very intelligent in my country, the government directs you to do science," she explained.
"I've always wanted to study higher education; I never wanted to just stay back and be a wife and mother."
But after high school, she put her dreams on hold.
She had three young children, and she had to wait until she could balance motherhood with her studies. Ten years passed.
"Within that time, all my classmates had finished university and were working, and I was just a housewife, and I wanted to also be in their league," she recalled.
She admitted that she felt a tinge of envy when she saw students graduate who were not nearly as successful as her in school.
When she finally went back, she excelled in the sciences, with her top grades in physics.
Now, she serves as Deputy Dean of Student Affairs at Bayero University in Kano and lectures undergraduate and postgraduate students in the Department of Physics.
Her research has covered electronics, particle physics, atmospheric physics and space weather physics, and she applies it to local environmental needs, including hydropower and waste recycling. She has been published in journals for applied physics.
She won the Elsevier Foundation Award for research that aims to solve Nigerian environmental challenges, such as decreasing deforestation by turning carpenter's waste into briquettes for use in place of firewood. She is currently working on a government project to gather atmospheric data.
She is now a mother of six children, two with disabilities, balancing that role with her work as mentor for local and national science projects that encourage youth participation. She is a role model for science education in her predominantly Muslim community, where girls' education is struggling to be recognized.
Dr. Sa'id closed her acceptance speech with a metaphor that brought tears to the eyes of people in the audience:
The spotlight is shining on me, but as we know with the physics of light, it is the interaction of the radiation with matter that enables visibility. So I'm standing before you today, and the light is shining on me, and I'm only visible because I'm interacting with all of you.
"My teacher made the subject interesting and practical"
Dr. Mojisola Oluwayemisi Adeniyi was the second of eight siblings born in the small town of Iwo in Southwestern Nigeria, and the first to study science in her family. A high school teacher got her interested in physics.
"The teacher made the subject interesting and practical," she recalled, explaining that he related them to the real world.
Her parents, both teachers, urged her to become a medical doctor because of the high income in the medical profession, telling her that her that her grades were too good for a physics career. Still, she opted for physics even though it was difficult for her to convince them.
She studied physics in college and atmospheric physics in graduate school, obtaining her Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and PhD from the University of Ibadan, where she is now Head of the Atmospheric Physics/Meteorological Research Group in the Department of Physics.
In 2012, she earned an additional Master of Science degree in Applied Meteorology and Climatology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
Like her introduction to physics, she continues to use science toward practical ends in her country. She received the Elsevier Foundation award for research using modeling to understand weather and climate, as well as atmospheric radioactivity, lightning and food security. Her research has shed light on when to best plant staple crops in Nigeria. She has also presented on efforts to improve the accuracy of climate models. She has published her research in peer reviewed journals.
She's also a mentor, sharing what she has learned abroad as well as locally. At the university, she teaches students and colleagues software skills for the analysis of climate change and weather data, even sharing the laptop in her office.
"When you see us sometimes, all of us will be on one laptop," she said.
"It wasn't easy for me to gain this knowledge," she added. "I had to force myself to go out of Nigeria to learn all this. In terms of capacity building, I'm teaching all my students and my colleagues so they will be able to do the kind of research I do."
She said her husband, a businessman, gives her research "full moral support," and their 14-year-old son is now interested in physics.
And her parents are now "convinced and happy" of her choice to pursue a career in physics.
The Elsevier Foundation
The Elsevier Foundation New Scholars program, which funds the awards, also supports projects to help early- to mid-career women scientists balance family responsibilities with demanding academic careers and addresses the attrition rate of talented women scientists. A call for 2016 award nominations will be issued this spring. Visit elsevierfoundation.org for more information or contact Elsevier Foundation Program Director Ylann Schemm (@YlannSchemm) at firstname.lastname@example.org.[divider]
International Year of Light
The UN has proclaimed 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies (#IYL2015), to raise global awareness of how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Activities are taking place around the world with goals ranging from ending "light poverty" by providing glasses to those who need them most to developing the exciting fields of physics and optics and pushing its scientific limits.
This is exactly what the award winners are doing. They are great female role models for physics and mathematics, and women around the world will feel inspired by their stories and perseverance.
At Elsevier, we're celebrating this year with various events and activities:
- Video contest for International Year of Light (#IYL2015)
- Seeking entries for Physics Innovation Award
In addition, we've joined with organizations from around the world to support the creation of the documentary Einstein's Light. (See "A sneak peak at the upcoming film Einstein's Light."
Alison Bert (@AlisonBert) is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect. She joined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York.
In the previous century, Alison was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was Fulbright scholar in Spain, and studied in a master class with Andrés Segovia.
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Awards for early-career women scientists were presented at AAAS by the Elsevier Foundation, TWAS and OWSD