What it means to be a woman in science in the developing world

The winners of the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award talk about how being a woman impacts their work in engineering sciences

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The winners of the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women in Science in the Developing World, left to right: Grace Ofori-Sarpong, PhD (Ghana); Felycia Edi Soetaredjo, PhD (Indonesia); Tanzima Hashem, PhD (Bangladesh); María Fernanda Rivera Velásquez, PhD (Ecuador); and Rania Mokthar, PhD (Sudan), who did not attend the Award ceremony because of the recent travel ban. (Main photo by Alison Bert)

For Dr. Tanzima Hashem of Bangladesh, being a woman has made her aware of hardships faced by women in her country, which she is addressing with smartphone technology.

Dr. Grace Ofori-Sarpong of Ghana went against the norms of her family and culture by continuing her university education instead of settling down to start a family.

And Dr. María Fernanda Rivera Velásquez of Ecuador believes the experience of being a mother – and the qualities that enable motherhood – can give women a unique perspective and empathy in their scientific work.

They are among the five women to receive the annual OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World last month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston. The award celebrates pioneering research, this year in engineering, innovation and technology. With a $5,000 prize and all-expenses-paid attendance at the AAAS meeting, it’s designed to empower women to be role models, especially in countries where more scientific expertise and gender equality in academia is critically needed.

OWSD President Jennifer Thomson, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Capetown, South Africa, talks about empowering women in science at the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award awards ceremony at the AAAS annual meeting. (Photo by Alison Bert)“It’s about empowering women to believe in themselves,” said OWSD President Prof. Jennifer Thomson, who paved the way for other women academics in South Africa by rising through ranks of the once male-only leadership of the University of Capetown’s Faculty of Science to be appointed full professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology.

“Very often women don’t believe that they can compete with men, so we have to get more women graduating with PhDs,” said Dr. Thomson, now an emeritus professor. “But then we have to make the situations in their home institutions welcoming and enabling so they are able to continue after their PhDs and become full professors like I did.”

Prof. Geraldine Richmond, PhDAAAS President Dr. Geraldine Richmond, Presidential Chair and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon and a member of the Elsevier Foundation board, said she has personally witnessed the impact of the award on the careers of several recent winners: “It is wonderful and heartwarming to see how it has boosted their confidence toward achieving their career aspirations and has provided them with access to an international network of women scientists that will be of benefit to them for the rest of their careers.”

In one way or another, being a woman has influenced the path of these scientists. For a few, it has had a direct impact on the research itself; for others, it’s come with challenges that have defined their paths as scientists. Each is finding her voice – and success – in a way that is distinct, while also encouraging the next generation of female scientists.

Creating technology to solve real-life problems of women

Tanzima Hashem, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, talks about the importance of encouraging young women to pursue engineering sciences. (Photo by Alison Bert)Sometimes, being a woman can influence the research one pursues. That’s the case for Dr. Tanzima Hashem, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. For Dr. Hashem, who was recognized for developing technology to protect user privacy while accessing location-based services, her work has applications that go far beyond the technical. It’s about understanding the problems faced by women and finding ways to solve them with technology.

“In our country, it is common that women face harassment on the street, in public transport and at public events,” Dr. Hashem explained. But women don’t feel comfortable telling others about it. So she led the development of an application that allows women to share their experiences while having their privacy protected. The Safe Street app, now in prototype, will give users suggestions for a safe route based on harassment history.

Dr. Hashem is also using technology to improve the poor working conditions of her country’s garment factories. “The garment industry is very important for the development of our country, and many women work in those places,” Dr. Hashem said. “But unfortunately they have to live in poverty, and they have to face a poor working environment.

In 2013, a complex of five factories collapsed, killing more than 1,135 people, many of them 18 to 20 years old.

“From this,” Dr. Hashem said, “it came into my mind that we should monitor the working conditions of these garment factories, and we should collect feedback from workers.”

But that would not be easy. Workers are unlikely to share information that could get them in trouble or fired. Yet collecting purely anonymous feedback with no regard for who submitted it would be of limited value because people could make false claims. With her expertise in privacy, she and her team developed a computational solution where they can collect feedback in a privacy preserving manner such that an individual worker’s feedback remains hidden in the aggregate feedback and a worker’s feedback cannot be linked with her identity. “Protecting privacy is different than hiding identity,” Dr. Hashem explained. “You have to ensure you are taking the identity from the right people.”

The next step will be to develop an app.

She also hopes to encourage more young people to go into engineering.

“In our country, traditionally engineering is not for female students,” she said. In her case, she was accepted into university programs for both medicine and engineering, leaving her to choose between two very different career paths. Of course, she got plenty of help with this decision: “All of my relatives and friends told me, ‘You should do medical science because females do well in medical science; females do not go for engineering.’ But I got support from my parents; they told me, ‘You should select the subject that you prefer.’ I was good at math and problem solving, (so) I decided to pursue engineering.”

Now, as a university professor, she sees the field changing, gradually drawing more women. With this award, she said, she hopes to motivate even more women to pursue Engineering science. “Since I have received the award, I hope this will motivate them (more women to pursue ES). I always motivate my students to pursue higher studies.”

“I became the odd one out”

Grace Ofori-Sarpong, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Mines and Technology in Ghana, accepts the the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award. Mycohydrometallurgy (fungi-mediated gold extraction), recovery of precious metals, acid mine drainage mapping and safe practices in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Two days before the award ceremony, Dr. Grace Ofori-Sarpong reflected on the journey that led her there. When she was born, her mother had already lost six children – but she had high hopes for Grace and her three siblings. “My mother never ever had any formal education, so her aim was to educate her children,” she said. That was no problem for Grace, who excelled at school; in fact, her teachers predicted that with her mathematics skills, she could become a scientist.

The challenges came later, when she was finishing secondary school and looked into pursuing higher studies. She noticed that in her extended family, her peers were getting married and having children.

“I became the odd one out,” she said. “Everyone was settling into a family, and I was the only one going to school, school, school,” she said. “When I entered the university, my mother … also wanted to give up because she realized I was growing (older and) had to settle and have a family. But I was bent on pursuing my education.”

“The odd one out” would become a theme for the years that followed. After finishing her master’s degree, she began teaching at the University of Mines and Technology – as the only woman engineer on the faculty:

I felt so lonely to start with, and it was difficult to even make friends with people. I used to be a very shy person, and it was difficult to approach people, and I was waiting for people to approach me, and they were minding their own business. But I determined to work very hard and not be intimated by the fact that I was a woman. So I kept on working very, very hard, and I got some of the positions the men were occupying.

After four years, she got a government scholarship to do her PhD in the United States. But from the beginning, she told herself she would return to Ghana as soon as she finished. While it’s not unusual for women to have a PhD in the US, she said, in her country, she could use it to make a real impact.

She kept her word, and for the past six years, she has risen through the ranks at her university to become an Associate Professor. She is now Head of Petroleum Engineering and Vice Dean of the Planning and Quality Assurance Unit.

“My impact in the university has been felt even by top management,” she said.

They also have about 12 female faculty members now, and most of them look up to her as a mentor and role model. To widen their influence, she founded an association called Ladies in Mining and Allied Professions in Ghana. Members visit schools to tell students about their own experiences and offer advice and encouragement to pursue higher studies in science to reduce the gender gap in STEM.

While conditions have improved for women, Dr. Ofori-Sarpong is still quick to impart the reality: “If you want to rise like your (male) counterpart is rising, you have to put in a double effort,” she said.

To be considered for positions typically occupied by men, a woman has to “make herself known,” she explained. And then there are the family responsibilities:

At the university, if you want to get promoted, we say that you need to promote yourself. In other words, you need to do research, you need to publish papers, you need to do service, you need to teach well, show evidence of all these things – but you also have a family you need to think about. So most of the time, I spend time outside of work hours to catch up. It’s like you’re always running because of family responsibilities, and if you don’t catch up, the men are always moving ahead of you.

Dr. Ofori-Sarpong’s contributions were recognized when she received the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for her work on mycohydrometallurgy (fungi-mediated gold extraction), recovery of precious metals, acid mine drainage mapping and safe practices in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

“Opening doors to education for women in STEM”

Rania Mokthar, PhDDr. Rania Mokthar, Director of the External Relations Office of the Sudan University of Science and Technology, works to transform communication systems in African universities. She sees this work as “a key to opening doors to education for many more women in STEM.”

She initiated the first online journal submission system in Sudan for 10 journals published by her university, as well as for the online conference management system. She was recognized for her work on solutions for national projects in wireless communications engineering, agriculture automation sensors networks, and security systems.

“Receiving the award means that my work is recognized, and this gives me the courage and the opportunity to stand out,” she said. “It gives me the vision to achieve my goals.”

Her goals include encouraging female scientists to pursue postgraduate degrees in engineering. At the university, she is working to connect the academic staff with sponsoring organizations for research and postgraduate fellowships. Currently, she said, many women pursue science education in her country, but engineering only recently started attracting female students.

Also, many women face hurdles after graduation.

“The challenge is not in pursuing science or engineering; it's finding job in the field,” Dr. Mokthar said. “There are always biases in governmental and non-governmental organizations, even in the research centers. Many male coworkers don’t take their female colleagues seriously, and surprisingly some of them are well-educated men.”

Dr. Mokthar did not attend the AAAS ceremony because she had difficulty making new travel plans after the US travel ban that included her country.

“You can get married after you finish your studies”

Felycia Edi Soetaredjo, PhD, Lecturer at Widya Mandala Surabaya Catholic University in Surabaya, Indonesia, was recognized for her work utilizing waste and cheap materials for environmental remediation of renewable energy (Photo by Alison Bert)Dr. Felycia Edi Soetaredjo, a Lecturer at Widya Mandala Surabaya Catholic University in Surabaya, Indonesia, was recognized for her work utilizing waste and cheap materials for environmental remediation and renewable energy. She said she’s motivated by the desire to improve the environment of her country – and encourage young women to create better lives for themselves by pursuing science.

“In Asian countries, especially in Indonesia, sometimes people think a woman is just a housewife, not a scientist,” she said. Even when the do pursue science, they tend to be lecturers rather than researchers.

As a lecturer, she encourages her female students to pursue graduate studies. “They’re still thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a girl, so after I finish my undergraduate, I will have a family,’” she said. “And then that’s it, raising the children. But I told them that it’s not finished after undergraduate; you should do more. Nowadays it’s common to have an undergraduate degree. If you want to get a better job, a better life – a better everything – you should pursue further study, at least a master’s degree.”

After that, Dr. Soetaredjo said, many women are reluctant to get a PhD. “The women students often say, “If I go for the study, I think it will be difficult to find a partner and difficult to find a job because a company will think I’m overqualified,’” she said. “I tell them the world is open; countries from overseas also come to Indonesia, so you have a big opportunity.”

She said her own view changed when she did her master’s degree in Australia. “I become open minded; I see things differently,” she said. “I can take the challenge of a job and have the confidence to go for a multinational company. I encourage them that way. And I tell them, nowadays, getting married at 22, 23 years is too young. You can have more experience in your life; you can get married later on after you finish your studies, but after you get married, it can be very hard to finish your studies.”

In her case, her work has become a passion for her. She noticed the quality of her country’s air and water was better when she was a child, so she set out to fix it through science.”

“People aren’t really aware, they just take it for granted; they just try to take anything they can take but they are not really concerned about the result. That’s motivating me. I know I’m just one person, I will not change the whole country; I will not change the whole world, but if I can do something that can impact a small community or someone, maybe one day they can influence in a bigger way. So that’s motivating me to keep doing research and keep learning and try to influence the students to keep studying and have a bigger dream.”

Being a mother changes your perspective in science

María Fernanda Rivera Velásquez, PhD, Professor-Researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Chimborazo, Department of Environment and Physics, in Ecuador, was recognized for her work on the identification of new reactive materials for the reduction of contaminants. (Photo by Alison Bert)For Dr. María Fernanda Rivera Velásquez, being a woman does make a difference in science. “Only a woman can be a mother”. “You have the privilege to be able to teach your children, to pass on knowledge — to guide and educate. This experience is reflected in your way of doing science; as you become more complete, you can have a broader point of view.”

She said the experience of being a mother – or even the mere fact of carrying within you this possibility – allows women to have a sensitivity that is not often found in men. “It activates that empathy, attention and care that are inherently womanly,” she said. “Our brains are all the same; we can do the same tasks. But for example, when working with kids, you can see little things and details that a man cannot see.

Dr. Velásquez said that empathy guided her when she did her PhD in Italy with a grant from the host University of Calabria, opening the path to several other women from Ecuador who would receive a government grant to study abroad in the coming years. “I was always thinking about how to open doors for more and more people to have this opportunity,” she said. “This willingness to help others, especially other women, is a feminine quality, something that I thought of because I am a woman. …”

She said the situation has improved dramatically since then for women and science as a whole.

“Ten years ago in my country, no one was talking about research,” she said. “Now with our last president, things are changing and doors are being opened. In 2005 we had 100 PhDs, and now we have thousands of people doing research abroad. … New laws are giving more equality to men and women – for example we now have our first woman rector in an Ecuadorean university.

In Ecuador, Dr. Velásquez played a key role in promoting the establishment of a Center of Science, whose creation will be soon formalized between Escuela Superior Politécnica de Chimborazo (ESPOCH) and the governmental agency Yachay Empresa Pública (Yachay EP). She received the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for her work identifying new reactive materials for the reduction of contaminants, with special attention to local natural fibers and minerals (zeolites).

Do women and men bring different qualities to science?

Dr. Velásquez’s comments raise the question of whether women and men have traits and tendencies that make them better at different tasks and disciplines. Indeed it’s a controversial topic. But the women here did not hesitate to share their opinions, based on their own experiences an observations.

Grace Ofori-Sarpong, PhDDr. Ofori-Sarpong thinks women are “wired to be multidisciplinary and do a number of things at the same time.” That tendency, combined with the skills she’s developed managing the home, make her especially good at the administrative work she does in her department. “I think that women have an eye for detail in general, so when I am put in charge of an office, I am able to … manage things well, just as women manage things at home. At least in our part of the world, management of the home is done mainly by women, while the men are supposed to provide financially.

Prof. Jennifer Thomson, PhDProf. Thomson also thinks women have a tendency to work across disciplines in the course of their careers, as well as being more likely to initiate collaborations. She gave an example from early in her career, when she became Head of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Capetown:

I inherited a department that had been functioning extremely well, but it had two separate groups: there were the bacteriologists and the virologists. And they didn’t work together. There was very little interaction, and I felt that it was counterproductive.

So she had an idea. “I wanted to work in plant genetic engineering,” she recalled, “so I went to South Africa’s leading plant virologist, who happened to be in my department, and I said to him, ‘How can we work together? What is a problem that you and I can solve together?’ And he said, we could develop maize resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus, which is only found in Africa, and you and I could do it together with our research groups.’ So we set about with this joint research project, and then of course the two groups worked very closely together because we needed each other.

“So I think women are very good at bridging gaps.”

Her collaborations also include working with social scientists:

I couldn’t work in my field if it weren’t for the economists who could convince government that what I have produced will be economically viable, or the social scientists who convince people that genetic engineering is not a curse to humanity. And political scientists who help me get the ear of government so that I can change the lens of government. So that’s one of the reasons we need more women.

She also thinks women tend to be “less driven by a single goal,” which can free them to work in a variety of related disciplines rather than specializing. That’s been her choice throughout her career, giving her incentive to seek out experts in less familiar fields.

“I started out as a bacterial geneticist; I now work in plant genetic engineering,” she said. “To me it was a logical progression. For the National Research Foundation in South Africa, which rates scientists on their peer reviewed literature and their contributions to science, I’m a nightmare because I go from field to field. But it’s the reason I have now developed a maize variety that could be drought tolerant and could help the continent with climate change.”

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