To mark the forthcoming UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February 2019), we speak to some of CABI’s women working in science. In this blog Lucy Karanja, a Content Manager, reveals the motivation and inspiration behind her career in science communications and says ‘women are all round scientists naturally’.
What motivated you to work in science and development?
My parents were business people and I did not know anybody in our village who was a scientist. I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up because I admired the way pupils respected teachers. In class 8, we were given a multiple choice science quiz and guess what? I miraculously got 18 out of 20. There were four boys and I was the only girl.
The science teacher was very happy with the top five and to entice the rest of the class into working hard, us, the top performers, were given badges written ‘best in science’ and enrolled into a first aid class by St John Ambulance for one month. Every Friday afternoon the school van used to take us to the city for first aid lessons. This was very prestigious. To maintain the good grades, I became keener and started discovering that science unlike history, related directly to our daily lives. Every science topic we learnt in class had something to do with us or the environment. The boys constantly did well in science and did not seem to struggle to maintain the top grades. The teacher encouraged me to work hard to uphold the top grades in science but deep in me I wondered whether the good performance was sustainable for a girl like me by then.
I was and still am motivated by discoveries and surprises that come with science. For example when you set an experiment in field or isolate a microorganism from a substrate in the laboratory, you have expectations of how the results should be but surprisingly you hardly get 100% of your predicted results, there will always be something that leaves you thinking, takes you back to literature to explain or discover a new concept. This objective thinking gives me a sense of accomplishment and makes science to me the most interesting field of study.
Which female scientist inspires you and why?
I am inspired by the late Professor Wangari Maathai. She was a mother, a women rights activist, an environmentalist, a politician, founder of the Green Belt Movement, first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD in veterinary anatomy and first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (sustainable development, democracy and peace). This unbowed woman did everything that many women dread to do. She had an open minded attitude, fought tooth and nail to change the societies’ perception by demonstrating that being a woman should not be a limiting factor when it comes to personal ambitions and career growth. As a scientist, Maathai’s courage, confidence, passion for nature motivates me into working with women more and proof that women’s role in food security is equal to that of men.
What has been your biggest scientific achievement?
My biggest scientific achievement was graduating with a Master’s degree in Microbiology and Biotechnology from the University of Nairobi back in 2013. This milestone was a dream come true, having joined CABI with a Diploma in Applied Biology in the late 90s. My second achievement was getting an opportunity to carry out research in different science projects. This has diversified my scientific skills and empowered me to create a niche for myself in CABI and, as a result, I have enrolled for a PhD in Agriculture Information and Communication Management – a course that enables me to break communication barriers between scientists and non-scientists. As a woman I understand the challenges that women face in agricultural production. For example, the use of improved technologies to improve yields. As a woman scientist I also now know how to communicate scientific solutions to their challenges in a language and tone they understand, considering their cultural backgrounds, religion and education backgrounds. This has been the most fulfilling accomplishment in the last three years.
What barriers have you faced as a woman scientist in your work and how have you overcome them?
Women scientists face many obstacles at places of work. First people always think there has to be a ‘man back up’ for a woman to accomplish all the project goals. Unfortunately, unlike men women have to work extra hard to be at the same level with men. The barriers are countless. Personally, I feel like I am still far from achieving my career goals. Raising a young family, working and pursuing my education at the same time has been a challenge. To overcome the challenges, I have learnt to do my part and leave the rest to God. Secondly I try to separate work and family commitments where possible. I also respect and appreciate family support systems.
What does the future hold for you and other women working in science and development?
Women are all round scientists naturally. What is needed now and in future is some mentorship programs where women are empowered to be confident and to believe in themselves. There are many opportunities in science for women but as I mentioned earlier, women need to work extra hard to accomplish their personal and career goals. Women need not to shelf their ambitions for fear of social perceptions and opinions. They need to embrace a positive gender identity to succeed. Science and development is very dynamic, interesting and non-competitive. This is where I see my growth, currently as a researcher, student and as a lecturer in future.
What advice would you give to girls and women thinking of pursuing a career in science?
Science is a manageable field of study. If it’s something you’ve always wanted pursue, then go for it. Work closely with a mentor as you need him or her in your career growth. Take work/life balance seriously. As a woman society has expectations and your roles as a woman are very important to society. Be patient and only concentrate in scientific fields that interest you.