Though the sustainable development goal (SDG) five calls for gender equality and empowering women and girls, they remain underrepresented in science fields.

In 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated that 45-55% of students globally at the master’s and bachelor’s levels of study were women, yet only a much smaller percentage are in science fields such as engineering and computer science.

This gap widens further when moving up the ladder as women represent only 30% of the world’s researchers and just 12% of members of national science academies, with small proportions in lower-income countries.

In a newsletter published by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the organization is bridging this gender parity gap in science fields, by supporting women to pursue and advance scientific careers.

Through the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), the IDRC is providing individual research funding and training as well as networking opportunities.

In 2017, for instance, the Centre collaborated with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to support more than 200 women doctoral students and scientists in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

The aim is to enable promising women scientists to access funding for research focusing on addressing key challenges facing developing countries as well as the whole world, and assume greater leadership responsibilities.

Dr. Claire Hirwa (carrying the chicken in the middle) during field work

Dr. Claire D’Andre Hirwa, an agricultural scientist from Rwanda, is among the first cohort of OWSD fellows. She is on a mission to save the country’s indigenous chicken using molecular genetics techniques to identify genes that could be advantageous for Rwandan poultry breeders.

Consequently, she has collaborated with local companies that produce feed and other products for poultry farmers, helping them to understand the characteristics of local chicken breeds so that the feed can be tailored to their specific nutritional needs, OWSD reported.

Dr. Hirwa hopes that running her own lab will be an inspiration to younger girls and women entering scientific careers.

Prof Olubukola Oluranti Babalola, from Nigeria, is also among the first women scientists to have benefited from the OWSD Ph.D. fellowship program, and the first scientist in Africa to have specialized in rhizosphere metagenomics. She advocates for bio-fertilizer over chemical fertilizers for plant health management.

She is also a regional member for Africa of the OWSD Executive Board since 2016 and was re-elected in 2021 as OWSD Vice President for Africa. In 2022, Prof Babalola was selected as Vice President of the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).

Dr. Mavis Owureku-Asare in the field

Dr. Mavis Owureku- Asare, is a Ghanaian food scientist revolutionizing the use of tomatoes in her country by developing a solar dryer that is affordable and effective for extending their shelf life.

Though tomato farmers already practiced traditional sun-drying in many places, Dr Owureku-Asare wanted to optimize the solar drying process in a systematic way while also enhancing the quality of the foods produced.

By the end of her PhD, she had developed a prototype passive solar dryer that could dry about 5 kg of tomatoes in a single batch.

Dr. Owureku-Asare received funding from the OWSD Early Career fellowship program to produce larger-scale versions of the device and to test their application in producing high-quality tomato paste, tomato puree and other products.

She envisions that her lab will be well-positioned to help farmers with post-harvest management of various types of agricultural produce. She is working with networks of farmers, with the majority being women, to deliver resources and training that will improve their knowledge of post-harvest systems and food product development and training, enabling them to apply this knowledge in their local communities.

Another fellow is Pamella Kageliza Kilavi-Ndege, a Kenyan physicist protecting vulnerable populations from radiation and other contamination risks, especially those working in mines.

Her research has important implications for how mining companies approach environmental remediation because her research results indicate that heavy metal contamination is posing a greater risk than radioactivity.

Alkhansa Mahmoud, is a PhD fellow from Sudan. She is making breast cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy as she notes that the main problem in radiotherapy is that most cancer cells are resistant to radiation.

By finding better drug candidates to act as radio-sensitizers, her research can help to increase the benefit of such treatment while diminishing toxic side effects.

According to Mahmoud, radio-sensitizers are chemicals commonly used in radiotherapy treatment to make tumor cells more sensitive to DNA damage from radiation, enhancing the rate at which these cells are killed.

Sylla Salma, a PhD fellow on track to becoming Senegal’s first astrophysicist has big plans for her country’s astronomy community. Salma’s research compares the impacts of meteors on Jupiter and the Moon. By studying the flashes resulting from the impacts, she hopes to be able to help astrophysicists make a more precise estimate of the age of the outer solar system.

Salma Sylla Mbaye during field work

Muna Mohamed Elhag, is fighting climate change for agro-pastoral communities in Sudan. She says the vulnerability to climatic stress of agro-pastoral based communities in Sudan is compounded by various issues including inadequate understanding amongst the scientific community of the nature and degree of vulnerability of these communities.

This is due to poor facilitation, minimal access to regionalized climate change scenarios, limited methodological experience and skill in regional modeling. Elhag also notes that collaboration between meteorological and agricultural scientists is still weak.

Again in 2020, early-career fellows involved in this program undertook various topics including the study of genetic risk factors for breast cancer in Ghanaian women.

Maryse Dadina Nkoua Ngavouka, an early career fellow from Congo, who also owns a laboratory is working on sustainable energy solutions to power areas that lack electricity in her country by developing hybrid grid systems.

Raquel Matavele Chissumba, an immunologist from Mozambique is working to find a locally available treatment for COVID-19 in African populations while Ossénatou Mamadou, from Benin in West Africa, is the only micro-meteorologist working to better understand variability in the region’s climate.

These are just but a few women scientists that have been supported to bring change not only in their countries but also Africa at large in order to help achieve sustainable development goals.

Source: IDRC Newsletter

-Compiled by Mary Hearty