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Female African scientists improve research and inspire the next generation

Timed to coincide with the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science today (11 February) and to inspire more female students to study and work in science, the GCRF START grant has announced the results of its three-year project launched in March 2019.  

To date, it has directly collaborated with nearly 50 young African research students and given access to almost 100 synchrotron beamline sessions.  Over half of START’s (Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology) students are female scientists who are demonstrably changing perceptions and increasing the possibilities for women choosing long term research careers in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

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Professor Chris Nicklin, science group leader and principal investigator in the GCRF START grant programme: “Globally UNESCO figures show that only 30% of researchers are female and they occupy only 20% of STEM leadership positions. These figures are even lower in many countries in Africa underlining how important it is to challenge women’s under-representation. Young female African scientists are vital both for their research and as role models and mentors for the next generation. So we are really delighted to see many of the young women we collaborate with through the START grant, making great strides and achieving some incredible results in the fields of structural biology and energy materials.”

Challenging the under-representation of women in STEM

GCRF START is a collaboration between Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron, and higher education and research partners in the UK and Africa. It is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council under the UK government Global Challenge Research Fund programme.  It is enabling and inspiring researchers from this, and the next generation of Africans to choose careers in science and find African and joint UK-African solutions to some of the world’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. 

A key goal of the collaboration is to challenge the under-representation of women in science by providing access to world-class scientific facilities, funding, training, mentoring, and unique international collaborations. Great results have been achieved in a relatively short space of time because START scientists get access to specialist technologies and facilities not available on the African continent.

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The GCRF START grant supports young scientists working on key Climate, Energy, Health, and Education challenges in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by building partnerships between world-leading scientists in Africa and the UK and enabling them to work together on research using synchrotron science.

One indicator of the success of the programme is how the tiny community of structural biologists in Africa has grown across South Africa including a whole new generation of women. Similarly, in energy materials, the gender factor has traditionally been a barrier, so having young women entering materials science is great progress. Additionally, all of these women participate in outreach and act as role models to inspire girls to choose STEM careers.

Access to international labs creates confidence for women in science

Two examples of female START successes are Gugulethu Nkala and Michelle Nyoni. South African Energy Materials PhD student, Nkala, is investigating new generation renewable energy storage systems in South Africa to help close the energy poverty gap. Nyoni, a chemistry lecturer in Zimbabwe, is studying energy materials to improve the performance of Lithium-ion batteries for portable electronics and renewable energy sources to make them affordable and improve their environmental footprint to tackle climate change.

Nkala: “Seeing a black girl in science, makes girls see that there is someone, just like them, who has gone this far. We are breaking barriers that make science seem unattainable, by being the link between science and society, made possible by funding bodies like the GCRF START grant.”

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Access to inclusive quality education and lifelong learning opportunities is a distant dream for many young people across Africa, especially women. Few have the opportunity to finish school, let alone be mentored by experts or continue to postdoctoral studies. This can be due to lack of access to resources at home institutions, insufficient grant writing experience, lack of mentors or supervisors, inadequacy of facilities, and poor postdoctoral pay.

Professor Caren Billing, Energy Materials Research Group co-principal investigator, lecturer and associate professor in the School of Chemistry at Wits: “It is important to support and mentor young women in science especially since women are largely under-represented, particularly in the case of the physical sciences, the field in which we work. I found that having access to synchrotrons and also building international collaborations through the GCRF START grant programme has not only allowed the young women that I work with to gain better skills but they also grow in confidence about their abilities.”

Theresa Smith
Theresa Smith is a Content Specialist for ESI Africa.