Africa’s female scientists break barriers

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Maha Nasr from Egypt and Vinet Coetzee, South African NEF Fellow

It’s not every day that you hear about cutting-edge global discoveries led by African scientists, especially female scientists. And yet, the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) female Fellows are breaking barriers in non-invasive measures of health, nanotechnology for cancer and Alzheimer’s treatment, treating and preventing malnutrition, type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, next generation health systems and technology policies, plant defense in forest species, upcycling waste, and explaining Einstein’s fudge factor, to name only a few areas.

“What is clear is that in most cases the world does not know or value the contributions to female scientists to science or society. In the case of female African scientists, the Next Einstein Forum is working to put female scientists front and centre of the discussion on global research and innovation. Their work is valuable to science, and it is valuable for global development. As we collectively press for progress, we must highlight their contributions,” said Mr. Thierry Zomahoun, NEF Founder and Chair and the President and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).

According to UNESCO, the number of women around the world pursuing a career in science and technology is estimated at 28% and only 30% of STEM professionals in Sub-Saharan Africa are women. And yet, robust and sturdy capacities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are pivotal to contributing to a country or continent’s transformation. A report from the World Bank in 2014 noted that Sub-Saharan Africa’s notable economic growth in recent years is reflected in its growing capacity for research in the STEM fields.

“Those who will benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be those that leverage research and development. Africa urgently needs to invest in the training and retention of African women in STEM from a secondary to a post-doctoral level. Science needs women. This isn’t a platitude. It is an economic and societal imperative. Just look at the work that the female members of the NEF Community of Scientists are doing; they demonstrate the highest levels of scientific excellence and concrete impact to our global community,” said Nathalie Munyampenda, NEF managing director.

For instance, South African NEF Fellow Dr. Vinet Coetzee leads a team which developed an affordable 3D camera, at one tenth of the price of comparable commercial systems, to identify the specific facial features associated with Down syndrome in African infants. She plans to expand this research to other conditions. The long-term aim of the project is to develop a facial screening tool that can help doctors identify a range of conditions more accurately at a largely reduced cost. 

Professor Maha Nasr from Egypt is exploring the possibility of creation of novel carriers for treatment of diseases, mainly for cancer and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Sanushka Naidoo from South Africa Sanushka is focusing on mechanisms that can confer broad-spectrum, long lasting resistance (from forest species) by dissecting gene families and responses to pests and pathogens. 

Dr. Aku Kwamie from Ghana devotes her energies on health systems governance, which is a central pillar in ensuring equitable health care for all which is especially significant in countries with vast stretches of land and uneven development.

DNA patterns to trace human disorders is the focus of Dr. Rym Kefi from Tunisia. She is working to better understand the pathogenesis of Type 2 diabetes, to improve its diagnosis and treatment thereby reducing its prevalence not only in Tunisia.

The role of ICT, the identification of technologies appropriate to rural contexts is the focus of research by Professor Aminata Garba from Niger. Her hope is to explore the frontiers between policies and technologies. 

Leaders in their fields, these NEF Fellows are working to discover sustainable and viable solutions to problems that face humanity. They presented their work at the NEF Global Gathering 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda last month. 

The NEF had prepared a special session on ‘Bridging the Gap for Women in Science and Technology’ as part of the NEF Global Gathering 2018.

“It’s time for female scientists to step out of the shadows. They can’t do this without concrete support. Momentum and buzzwords are not enough. There are best practices to draw from. Now is the time to implement. That’s what will be discussed during our special session for women in science and technology,” said Mr. Zomahoun. 

African Media Agency