Changing the face of science

23 Apr 2019 - 09:00
UCT PhD Scholars Ephifania Geza, Chilufya Mwewa and Samar Elsheikh.

For much of recent history, the word ‘scientist’ has conjured up a particular image: most likely of someone white, male and based in the global north. Fortunately, the past few decades have seen a gradual shift and an opening-up of the field to recognise a more diverse group of people and perspectives.

While the playing field is still far from equal, the shift that has happened to date has been the result of hard work and commitment by a number of groups and individuals. One of them is the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD).

Founded in 1987, OWSD was the first international organisation to unite distinguished women scientists from the developing and developed worlds. It aims to support young women scientists and to increase their representation in scientific and technological leadership.

Although OWSD is headquartered in Italy at The World Academy of Sciences, their on-the-ground work is coordinated by national chapters in 22 countries throughout Africa, the Arab states, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.

OWSD aims to support women scientists throughout their careers, however, their flagship programme is the Postgraduate Training Fellowships for Women Scientists from Sub-Saharan Africa and Least Developed Countries at Centres of Excellence in the South. It creates funding opportunities for women scientists to pursue postgraduate studies leading to a PhD at any participating institution in the global south outside of their home country. 

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has been part of the programme since 2006, with 32 fellowships awarded to postgraduates at the university since then. The implementation of the fellowships at UCT and day-to-day support of the beneficiaries is coordinated by the International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO) with the Postgraduate Funding Office.

To find out more about benefits of OWSD’s fellowship programme, we spoke to three of UCT’s current OWSD fellowship recipients: Chilufya Mwewa from Zambia, who is pursuing a PhD in particle physics, and Ephifania Geza from Zimbabwe and Samar Elsheikh from Sudan, who are both pursuing PhDs in bioinformatics.

Opening access to the wider world

In addition to paying annual course fees, the OWSD fellowships provide recipients with a monthly stipend to cover basic living expenses, a special allowance to attend conferences, return tickets to their country of residence, visa expenses, an annual medical insurance contribution, as well as the opportunity to attend regional science communication workshops.

“OWSD has given me the opportunity to attend international conferences; I’ve participated in eight since I started my PhD, including the International Symposium on Biomedical Imaging in Washington DC, where I was able to present some of my work last year,” explains Elsheikh.

Mwewa says one of the highlights of her career so far has been her research tenures at CERN in Switzerland: the European Organization for Nuclear Research, home to the world’s biggest particle accelerator. Although she recently spent two years there on a separate grant, her first six-week stint during the course of her PhD was sponsored by OWSD.

Geza also emphasises how beneficial the travel opportunities arising from the OWSD fellowship are for young scientists.

“In November 2018, OWSD launched their Zimbabwe chapter and funded my attendance,” says Geza. “Even though the event wasn’t directly related to my research, I got to meet other women working in science, and this kind of thing is where collaborations start.”

Networking and collaborations

When asked about her advice to young women scientists just starting out in their academic career, Mwewa says, “Go to every networking event you possibly can. Meet people, collaborate, keep your ears open. You never know when someone may mention something in passing that could help you.”

Of course, having sufficient financial resources is often key to being able make use of networking opportunities – whether at home or abroad. And according to all three women, the funding they receive from OWSD – whether in the form of a travel grant or coming from their monthly stipend – has made it possible for them to attend these sorts of events and even push their research to new levels.

Elsheikh, for example, was introduced to a collaborator who has been able to provide her with the exact types of datasets she requires for her study, which is investigating whether certain genes contribute to the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s Disease or glioblastoma – the most aggressive cancer that begins in the brain.

Similarly, during Geza’s trip to Zimbabwe for the launch of the national OWSD chapter, she met another woman scientist from Chinhoyi University of Technology, Zimbabwe, who shares her academic interest in personalised medicine and may prove to be a useful contact for future collaborations. 

Giving back

More than its direct financial benefits, the fruit of OWSD’s work can be seen in the desire it has inspired in each of these young scientists to share their knowledge and experience with women who come from similar backgrounds.\

“The big thing OWSD promotes is networking and not working in silos. So, there’s power in working together,” says Geza. “As women, if you come together, you are with the same people, who suffer the same problems put on you by society.”

Elsheikh recalls a journalist approaching her for an interview because – as a woman of colour from the African continent who is also Muslim – she belongs to four minority groups.

“I want to support women around me – specifically those who belong to these four groups. I don’t want them to feel like they are a minority,” she says. “I want them to see me as an example of what they can achieve if they just keep their eyes open to the opportunities all around the world that are made for them.

“I want them to rise up and achieve what they want to achieve.”


Story Nadia Krige. Photo Lerato Mokhethi