By Mimi Kalinda
The term “STEM” stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. However, it is not simply a term that groups the four subjects: STEM refers to the integration of these four fields into a single cross-disciplinary programme. A key characteristic of this discipline is that the focus is not just on academic research and theory on its own. The discipline demonstrates a keen emphasis on real-world application and knowledge sharing.
To pursue a career in the STEM field requires the ability to work across all four of its component disciplines, at a high level of understanding of each. It also requires an aptitude for problem-solving, creativity, and innovative thinking. As you can imagine, STEM involves an exceptional capability for highly complex subject matters and challenging workloads, as well as remarkable intelligence.
Below is a showcase of four such extraordinary individuals from across Africa who are making an impact through their pioneering work within the STEM field:
Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina
Kenyan-born Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina’s passion for STEM was first sparked when she was still at school and has not slowed down since. Based in Johannesburg, she is an Associate Professor at the Wits School of Governance (WSG), through which she also holds the role of National Organiser of the Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN). Her work in the field of technology and innovation includes partnerships with the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities and the South African Cities Network (SACN). She holds undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Sociology (with a minor in Art & Design), dual masters degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning, and a PhD in Planning and Innovation Systems.
As an academic, Dr Karuri-Sebina lectures and mentors students on urban governance and innovation systems policy, and supervises both theoretical and applied research projects. Her work for SACN supported the organisation’s goals of promoting good governance, analysing strategic challenges, and providing advice to urban leaders when it comes to the management of South African cities. Her book, Innovation Africa: Emerging Hubs of Excellence, explains how critical innovation is for growth and development in Africa, and it draws lessons from successful innovation case studies from across Africa.
Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim
Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim is internationally renowned for her scientific research related to healthcare. Her work through the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa has impacted global responses to HIV and, more recently, the COVID-19 health crisis, contributing significantly to research related to the global pandemic. Born in South Africa, Professor Abdool Karim is one of the world’s leading AIDS researchers, with an impassioned focus on the HIV epidemic among young women, contributing to a better understanding of its evolution and impact. She is also an activist who promotes the human rights of people living with and affected by HIV.
In recognition of her research work on infectious diseases in developing countries, Professor Abdool Karim was awarded the esteemed Christophe Mérieux Prize last year. This prestigious honour was met with congratulations from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima stated: “I am proud to congratulate Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, a vital member of the UNAIDS family, on this incredible achievement. This award recognises the vital work that Professor Abdool Karim and her team have been doing over many years of the AIDS response. That work has led to a better understanding of what women and adolescent girls need to protect themselves against HIV, bringing hope for an AIDS-free generation.”
Captain Kgomotso Phatsima
A pioneer in the field of STEM, particularly with regard to aviation, Botswana’s Captain Kgomotso Phatsima is one of the few female pilots in the country. As a young child, looking up at aeroplanes passing high above, Captain Phatsima knew she was “born to fly”. Her humble beginnings, though, led to pursue a more “practical” career in education. However, when the Botswana Defence Force started to enlist its first female military pilots in 2009, she saw an opportunity to realise her dream of flying. She enlisted, and soon became one of the first female military pilots in the Botswana Defence Force.
Passionate about both aviation and youth development, Captain Phatsima realised that very few youths, and even fewer girls, were interested in STEM subjects, which are imperative for careers within aerodynamics, such as becoming a pilot or working within the aerospace industry. This led to her establishing a foundation called Dare to Dream, involved in the advancement of youth, women, and girls within the STEM field. The foundation not only supports the promotion of careers in aviation and aerospace, but also in robotics, coding, entrepreneurial development, business leadership, and other skills essential for students to progress in the business world in Africa and globally. Travelling deep into rural areas to connect with students, the foundation’s motto is to leave no child behind for African development.
Captain Phatsima’s accolades include: the Botswana Youth Awards Best Female of the Year 2017; being selected for the Obama Foundation African Leaders Program; and being chosen as one of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans by Africa Youth Awards 2018, among other impressive honours.
Ohemaa Adjei Andoh
Ghana-based Ohemaa Adjei Andoh studied Geological Engineering at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). She also held the position of Women in Engineering President/Women’s Commissioner for the College of Engineering at the same institute. Part of her professional work includes designing cementing jobs in the oil and gas industry.
Committed to sharing her love for the STEM field with young girls with an appetite for knowledge and affinity for science, Ohemaa started a foundation called Girls in Science and Technology (GIST). Research shows that most females in Ghana usually undergo secondary and tertiary education, where a career path has already been chosen based on their course selection. GIST, therefore, introduces young girls in their formative years to the endless opportunities that lie within STEM fields. GIST is run by a group of hardworking and focused women from different STEM fields with the common goals of serving as role models for young and upcoming females and offering mentorships to students in the STEM field. The foundation also aims to offer sponsorship to less privileged girls who want to pursue an academic and career path in STEM. Commenting on what she deems to be successful, Ohemaa states: “I believe I will see myself as successful when I have been able to significantly increase the percentage of women in STEM careers.”
These are just four remarkable women who are not only making strides within the STEM field in Africa but also helping other young people with a passion and drive for Mathematics and Science to explore and succeed in various STEM-based career paths. Inspiring the future pioneers of the continent is not just commendable from a leadership point of view, but doing so also contributes significantly to innovation, economic development, and progress, both in Africa and the world at large.