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Women in Stem

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By Miracle Nwankwo

Stories have been told about people who died in regrets knowing they never pursued their dreams and passion in life. This is why in recent times, parents, guardians, and teachers have begun to take conscious steps in helping their children find their passion and pursuing it wholeheartedly. 

To this end, the women in STEM category for this week brings you the story of Sarah Asio to help understand the impact and necessity of building on your talent and pursuing your dreams no matter what it takes.

Sarah began her journey into STEM as a little girl in Uganda who was attracted to mechanical appliances and electronics around the house. She decided to take up a course in electrical engineering, and build on her knowledge but she was discouraged by someone who told her about the infeasibility of gaining a degree in industrial engineering. Filled with passion to effect changes on her country’s infrastructure and economic development, Sarah stayed keen on finding her way despite the odds. Fortunately, she soon realized that she could still thread on the path and become a remarkable influence on her community back home in Uganda.

“In Africa, infrastructure and development are really important. I understood that my economy needed more input in this area and I made a more informed decision to pursue my first degree in industrial engineering. It would be the best way to make an impact in my country,” she says.

As soon as Sarah discovered that she had the ability to pursue her dreams and become a blessing to her people, she began to walk on the path she has chosen despite the cost.

After college, she went to the United States to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, afterwards a doctoral degree in industrial engineering at Texas Tech University.

She also had her share of the struggles that comes with surviving as a foreigner in a non-indigenous country, such as having to pay for her fees and many more. However, Sarah testifies that due to her Christian faith and continued efforts in applying for scholarships she was able overcome those financial challenges. As a result of her persistence, she received an AAUW International Fellowship that funded her master’s degree in industrial engineering at University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She also found a sense of community in international student groups as a replacement of a family which helped her navigate life and education in the Western world.

Sarah took a job at the Bayer, which required knowledge on digitizing agriculture. As a result, she got preoccupied with data science and began developing digital tools and solutions to enable the production of adequate food with less seed and ground by farmers.

“I was able to connect my original passion of making a difference and trying to empower economies to mature and remain sustainable, while also providing for indigenous people so they can develop as a nation.”

Having conquered negative words that tried to prove that she was incapable of doing what she had set her heart on; Sarah has been all out to inspire people with knowledge so that they can find their strength and pursue their dreams. In doing this, Sarah joined forces with local partners in Uganda to search out raw talents who are interested in areas that surround data science to harness and help them build a future. Under this platform she provides basic knowledge in STEM through tutorials and further steer them in the right direction to obtain technical certifications.

“I strongly believe in the grassroots approach in finding and training local people with the skills and talents to innovate what they have in order to solve problems in their culture and community.”

She has achieved some remarkable feats on this journey. She has also helped some Ugandans to create influential and innovative products for their communities. 

She enjoys recounting her journey in STEM and learning as it continues to evolve. Learning more about people has given her a strong platform to build her relationship. Relating with the grassroots creates a better interface with the lows of the society to enable a fruitful interaction as well as addressing their needs.

Sarah is also bent on navigating the workplace as a woman, she therefore encourages women to unapologetically own their accomplishments.

In line with that, she tells women to; “Look at what you have achieved and know that you have the right to be in the environment you are in. Stand boldly for yourself and let no one overlook you or sidestep you. Own your own truth. Speak confidently and be proud that you earned the right to be there on merit.”

As a beneficiary of the AAUW, her story is told in partnership with AAUW, which has a long history of opening doors for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), from the classroom to Capitol Hill. 

Sarah currently serves as the Data Science Lead at Johnson & Johnson where she works at combining business strategy and developing technical solutions in line with the organization’s values and global presence. In her belief, data science will propel the advancement of artificial intelligence. Like other rare and unexplored fields, it is an untapped mine. She foresees that in the nearest future, services and products will be completely transformed by decades of data from end-users, consumers, and practitioners. Sarah expects to see services across industries that are more attuned to the consumer’s needs, as she believes that this type of data has the power to diagnose problems occurring societally and make a real impact. 

The hands of women are recently being stained in valuable scientific innovations which continues to proffer solution that aids the survival of man. Being in a field that require so much to keep the earth moving, women in STEM have been up to task delivering and meeting needs on every ground.

Amongst these numerous women that make up the Women in STEM hall of fame is the Senegalese scholar and scientist Awa Marie Coll Seck who was born on January 1, 1951 in Dakar, Senegal. 

Dr. Coll Seck has been working in the field of health and disease prevention in her native country and internationally. After earning a degree in medicine from the University of Dakar in 1978, Dr. Coll Seck served for more than ten years as a specialist in infectious diseases in leading hospitals in Dakar, Senegal and Lyon, France. She specialized in bacteriology and virology, infectious and tropical diseases. She also studied applied epidemiology and biostatistics in Annecy, France. In 1989, she was appointed Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Dakar and Chief of Service for Infectious Diseases at the University Hospital in Dakar. She was the Director of the UNAIDS Department of County and Regional Support for Africa, Asia, Eastern and Central Europe, and Latin American and the Caribbean from 1996-2001. In 2002, she served as president of the Assembly of the Ministries of Health of the West African Health Organization.

From 2001-2003 and 2012-2017, Dr. Coll Seck served as Minister of Health, Senegal. As Minister of Health, she initiated far-reaching reform of the health sector in Senegal and engaged a wide range of government, civil society and private sector partners in the implementation and expansion of public health programmes. She mobilized strong political commitment within her country for health to be rightly recognized as key to economic and social development, and she successfully mobilized financial resources both domestically and from bilateral and multilateral international donors.

From 2004-2011 she was the Executive Secretary of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership based in Geneva, Switzerland. She has been a coordinator, counselor, and trainer with the National AIDS Program and a member of the World Health Organization country team in Senegal.

Dr. Coll Seck is also a member of the WHO Advisory Group on the Ebola Virus Disease Response. In January, 2019, the WHO Advisory Group established strategy to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. One of the responses was to immunize first responders and health workers who fight against this disease, partnering with the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dr. Coll Seck has been honored on numerous professional and academic grounds, including the Knight of the Order of Merit of the French Republic, Officer of the Order of Merit Senegalese; and Knight of the Order of Merit of Burkina Faso. She is an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences and Technologies of Senegal and the author of more than 150 scientific publications. In January 2016, Coll-Seck was appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the High-level Advisory Group for Every Woman Every Child. Also since January 2016, she has been serving on the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). 

Dr. Awa Marie Coll Seck has tremendously impacted the health sector of Africa and she is indeed an Icon worth emulating.

Taiwan has a large number of successful women in almost every sphere of life, in technology, business, agriculture, governance, education and much more, with a label of hard work.

These women are inspiring, never giving up and courageous. Some rose from grass to grace while other followed successful paths created for them by their fathers through inheritance.

In the field of technology, women in Asia including Taiwanese are known to attain unimaginable feats and positions through intelligence.

Eva Yi-Hwa Chen of Taiwan who was born and raised in Taichung, having schooled at the National Chengchi University in Taipei where she earned a degree in philosophy. 

After her undergraduate education at the National Chengchi University, she worked for a short time at two specific companies, one of which was Acer Inc. as a member of the research department.

Chen moved to the United States in 1984, where she obtained a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas studying management information systems.

Chen is the cofounder of Trend Micro, a multinational security software company that develops security software for servers, cloud computing environments, consumers, and small, medium and enterprise businesses. The company was established in 1989 by Steve Chang, his wife, Jenny Chang, and her sister, Eva Chen. The company sprouted out in Los Angeles, California but the global headquarters is situated in Tokyo, Japan, and regional headquarters in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

As a co-founder, she held the position of the executive vice president of the company until for eight years until 1996 when she became chief technology officer.

From being the CTO Chen was made CEO of the company in 2005, but she faced a huge challenge which almost weighed her down.

Prior to being the CEO of Trend Micro, while she still served as the company’s CTO Chen invented the Network VirusWall, an additional invention to the company’s profile. 

From being a traditional antivirus provider, Trend Micro shifted its focus to cloud protection, purchasing Canadian security company Third Brigade in 2009 and cloud storage service humyo in 2010 under the leadership of Chen.

She became one of Asia’s big time short as her fame spread around her region. Chen was awarded a Cloud Security Alliance Industry Leadership Award for her contributions to cloud security in the Asia-Pacific region in 2012.

She resides with her family in Pasadena, California. 

 

Miracle Nwankwo

“It is a really exciting moment when you know something about the whole world that no one else does.”

Pardis Sabeti was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1975, where her father, Parviz, was a high-ranking official in the shah’s government. Two years later, on the cusp of the Iranian revolution, the Sabeti family fled to the United

States, eventually settling in Florida. “My father took one of the toughest jobs in the government because he cared about his nation more than himself,” Pardis says. “His courage and conviction have always driven me to want to make a difference.”

In the early 1980s, Pardis’ mother, Nancy, bought some old textbooks, a chalkboard and a couple of school chairs and set up a makeshift summer school in the family’s home for Pardis and her sister, Parisa, who is two years older. Parisa, assigned the role of teacher, put together lesson plans and gave out report cards; Pardis directed the “performing arts” and helped run phys ed. The wide-eyed, toothy Sabeti sisters undoubtedly made for a cute tableau, but the work they were doing was intense and focused. “She would teach me everything that she had learned the year before in school,” Pardis says. When September rolled around, Sabeti was almost two years ahead of her classmates.

It was during those years that Sabeti first discovered her love for mathematics. “My sister taught me addition and subtraction and multiplication and division,” she says, “so by the time I got to school, I knew it all, and when we would do the times tables, I was just focused on doing it faster than anybody else. I already had the information, so it just got me to focus on excellence.”

That focus continued straight through high school—she was a National Merit Scholar and received an honorable mention on USA Today’s All-USA High School Academic Team—and at MIT, where she majored in biology and had a perfect 5.0 grade-point average. After graduating in 1997, she set off for Oxford, England, on a Rhodes scholarship, to pursue research on human genetic resistance to malaria.

At the time, the main way scientists studied natural selection in human beings was by developing theories to explain the presence of a specific version of a gene in a population. This method dated back to the 1940s, when the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane speculated that the reason red blood cell disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, were more common in tropical environments where malaria was endemic was that the gene causing those disorders also conferred some protection against malaria—the “malaria hypothesis.” Beginning in the 1980s, researchers began developing more sophisticated tests to identify “signatures” of natural selection, but these were blunt tools that had difficulty detecting evolutionary changes that had occurred in the past 10,000 years—precisely when many diseases that ravage humans arose.

Sabeti was convinced that there was a way to pinpoint when more recent changes in the human genome had occurred and that this knowledge could lead to breakthroughs in fighting disease. Specifically, she wanted to use the makeup of neighborhoods of genes (called haplotypes) to determine if a specific gene variation (called an allele) in a given neighborhood had recently come to prominence in a population because it conferred an evolutionary advantage. This should be possible, she thought, by using the never-ending process of genetic recombination—the breaking and rejoining of DNA strands—as a kind of clock to measure how long ago a given mutation had swept through a population. If a widespread mutation had appeared recently—for instance, the mutation that enabled adult human beings to digest the lactose in cow’s milk, a nutritional advantage for many people in Europe after cows became common there—fewer recombination events would have occurred since it was introduced. As a result, the mutated version of that allele should be on a stretch of DNA that was more or less identical for everyone in a population. If the mutation had appeared a longer time ago, recombination would dictate that the area around the mutated allele would have gone through more random recombination events and it would be on a stretch of DNA that was more varied across the population.

It was a radical approach: Instead of using existing tools to analyze new data, she was trying to develop new tools to use on available data. When she was at Oxford, “Everybody thought what I was trying to look for was dumb,” Sabeti says. “It seemed as if I was just going to go nowhere. I know everyone has a hard time at some point when they are in graduate school, but I was on the higher end of the hard time early on in my PhD.”

Nevertheless, Sabeti returned to Boston to attend Harvard Medical School and kept at it, taking “a series of little steps,” she says. “I was just charting my path in my own weird ways.” Then, early one morning, she plugged a large data set related to the DC40L gene, which she had already linked to malaria resistance, into an algorithm she had developed and watched results showing it was associated with a common haplotype—indicating it had recently been selected for—come into focus on her computer screen.

“I was just sort of beside myself with excitement,” she says. “It is a really exciting moment when you know something about the whole world that no one else does. I wanted to call somebody, but did not know anybody I felt comfortable calling at 3 a.m.”

There had been plenty of people eager to talk to Sabeti before long. That October, she was the lead author on a paper published in Nature that laid out her discovery’s “profound implications for the study of human history and for medicine.” For the first time, researchers could look for evidence of positive selection by testing common haplotypes even if they did not have “prior knowledge of a specific variant or selective advantage.” By applying this approach to pathogens, there was the possibility of identifying how diseases had evolved to outwit the human immune response or develop drug resistance—knowledge that would open up new avenues to combating disease.

By 2006, when Sabeti became just the third woman in the history of Harvard Medical School to graduate summa cum laude, she was working with Lander at the Broad Institute. Using the massive amounts of data being made available by next-generation genetic sequencing, Sabeti and her colleagues developed a tool to pore through the entire human genome (as opposed to just a handful of haplotypes) to locate gene variations that appeared to have been under recent selection pressure.

In a 2007 paper also published in Nature, they zeroed in on three clear examples in which genes involved in a common biological process underwent selection in the same population. The first gene pair, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, played a role in skin pigmentation in Europeans. The second pair, EDAR and EDA2R, was involved in the development of hair follicles in Asians. And the third gene pair, LARGE and DMD, was related to susceptibility to infection by the Lassa virus in West Africa.

Sabeti’s background in malaria and interest in infectious diseases pushed her to focus on Lassa, an acute viral hemorrhagic fever first identified in the Nigerian town of Lassa in the late 1960s. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies Lassa virus as one of only a handful of Category A agents, which “pose a risk to national security” because they’re deadly, can be easily transmitted between humans and “might cause public panic or social disruption.” Like the Ebola virus, Lassa virus is often referred to as an emerging pathogen, because the documented human cases have occurred relatively recently.

As Sabeti would quickly discover, working with Lassa presented a unique set of challenges. “I realized that I had become interested in a [virus that has]…very few people working on it,” she says. “In order to do that I just had to figure out how to do it myself.”

By now an assistant professor at Harvard’s Center for Systems Biology, Sabeti spent some of her junior faculty startup funds as well as money from an $875,000, five-year science and engineering fellowship from the Packard Foundation setting up a collaboration with a medical facility in Nigeria, the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital.

Sabeti’s decision to conduct fieldwork on a dreaded pathogen in a dangerous country 5,000 miles away was a bold move, especially considering she was best known as a computational geneticist. “I had tremendous challenges,” she says. “Universities are not always thrilled about having someone actively working with a deadly virus.”

Yet Sabeti’s holistic approach led to unexpected results. The financial support she provided to the Irrua hospital enabled caregivers to diagnose more patients and to offer treatment with the powerful antiviral drug ribavirin. “As the hospital got more and more proficient…we got more and more patients from a larger area,” Sabeti says. Soon the researchers had collected blood samples from more than a thousand people, including many plagued by fevers of unknown origin, and “every person with a fever was trying to get to this hospital” for treatment, Sabeti recalls. Based on the analyses of blood samples, and her reading of the literature, she began to suspect that many more people had been exposed to both Lassa and Ebola than had been previously believed.

Those data form the backbone of a provocative, just-published paper in Science, “Emerging Disease or Emerging Diagnosis?” She and her co-authors speculate that Ebola and Lassa might not be emerging diseases at all, but instead represent the “emerging diagnosis of a disease that has long been common but overlooked” and had “interacted with humans for far longer than generally thought.”

If this hypothesis is correct, it will have an enormous impact in how medical experts think about, and develop treatments and interventions for, diseases such as Lassa and Ebola: In addition to caring for those sick enough to end up in the hospital, researchers can study why some people are relatively unaffected by the virus. If the LARGE gene mutation common in West Africa was selected for because it helped humans resist infection with Lassa virus, mimicking changes caused by the gene could pave the way for treatments, or perhaps even a Lassa vaccine.

Thousands of patients in Nigeria have already benefited from Sabeti’s work, says Christian Happi, director of the Infectious Diseases Laboratory at the hospital in Irrua. “That simple action—to go out into the field, in a rural setting in Nigeria, to go down there to provide diagnostics and help with treatment in this rural community, very far away, with no infrastructure—it’s incredible,” Happi says. “Apart from being dedicated, generous with her time, generous with her knowledge—generous with everything, really—she just really wants to be involved. That type of generosity is a quality that not many people have.”

One Saturday night this past September, Sabeti, her family and members of her lab gathered at Lander’s house in Cambridge to celebrate her recent marriage to John Rinn, an assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard. (Lander had also gotten ordained by an online ministry so he could preside at the actual wedding a few weeks earlier.) Sabeti and Rinn, a specialist in RNA genetic material, met at the Broad, and their profiles seem to mirror each other: Sabeti’s a rock musician, Rinn’s an avid snowboarder who once thought about going pro; Mental Floss magazine named Sabeti one of “eight trailblazing scientists about to change your life” in 2007, Popular Science named Rinn one of the “ten young geniuses shaking up science today” in 2009; Sabeti’s initial approach to computational genomics was assumed to be a waste of time, as was Rinn’s early work on large intervening non-coding RNAs, or LINCs.

During the party, one of Sabeti’s students jumped into the middle of the room and started to dance to the Swedish pop star Robyn’s 2010 hit “Dancing on My Own.” A handful of other people jumped in, and then a few more. By the time “Starships” by the Trinidadian rapper Nicki Minaj and “Gangnam Style” had finished playing, it was clear that members of the Sabeti Lab had been meeting after-hours to rehearse. “It was awesome,” Sabeti said the next morning in a coffee shop in Boston’s Kenmore Square. “My mom joined in, Eric joined in—just incredible.”

It’s not surprising that people who work with Sabeti are so devoted to her. Dyann Wirth, the chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health, says that Sabeti is “brilliant—one of the smartest people I know,” but it’s her dedication to the people she works with that makes her unique. “She’s inspirational,” Wirth says. “She sets the bar very high and at the same time treats people with tremendous respect. That’s very hard to do.”

So Sabeti’s legacy may be defined as much by shaping the careers of the people around her as by her world-class contributions to science. And that’d be just fine with her. “My kind of, like, life goal is to help train students to be good people as well as good scientists,” she says. “That would be my dream.”

Source: The Scientist

For every test or examination taken at school in Nigeria, you are given a results sheet that ranks students in order of academic performance. Sounds daunting to many, but personally I enjoy that type of methodical evaluation and this system gave me (as a student) and my parents a measure of my academic performance.

Academia was so important to my family. I attended boarding school for my secondary education and my parents ensured I was given extra tutoring during mid-term breaks and holidays. Despite this extra effort, I struggled to meet my personal goals at school, finishing in the top 10 but never ranked top of the class. At my ‘academic peak’, my performance was second best, falling short of my closest friend and forming a slightly competitive bond.

You might think top ten, or second best is still pretty good by all standards but first place came with rewards such as a full scholarship. All my siblings successfully gained – and maintained – top of their classes but despite pushing myself I could never quite get there.

Without diminishing the tremendous efforts of my best friend’s consistent academic excellence, I believe I settled into the second-best position unconsciously. Secretly, each year, I competed for the first position, but my default coping mechanism was never to reveal these goals/ambitions openly for fear of not achieving them, appearing competitive, to relieve pressure, and limit expectations. “What happens if I get first place this term and cannot maintain it?” or “Is it not better to remain firmly in second place than to live through the embarrassing drop?”

I challenged myself each year and eventually found my feet and my academic passion to fix things. I honed this skill to complete my PhD at Loughborough University, and to become a practicing Electrical Engineer at Cundall.

Here is a few valuable lessons I learned along the way.

Let Go of the Inferiority Complex

I began to let go of my inferiority complex when I started viewing life as a journey, not a race. I analysed – and still do analyse – my successes (and the occasional failures) based on what I have accomplished, and my past experiences; consciously putting increased emphasis on enjoying the process of achieving my realistic goal. I do, however, occasionally still suffer from the “imposter syndrome”.

(SOS: If anyone has succeeded in getting rid of theirs completely, please kindly tell me how you achieved this, so that I can apply it to my life!)

Be Competitive

As a secondary school pupil, I was confused by what being competitive meant. Being competitive is generally viewed negatively by society – especially for women. But it’s completely natural to have competitive feelings. Like most feelings, competitiveness can have both positive and negative manifestations. In the extreme form, it can prove unhealthy and counter-productive. However, it can also serve as motivation. I have learnt and accepted that it is okay to want to win, so long as I don’t discredit others in the process.

Maintain Confidence

I maintain my confidence by reflecting on my past achievements, developing my knowledge and skills, and by learning new methods. Most of the time, it is easy to get so caught up in always achieving, and the next goal. If you look back at your journey occasionally, you realise that there is nothing the future can bring that you cannot handle without some preparation. My personal and professional journey so far is living proof of this. So, sometimes – just take a break and celebrate yourself!

Share Knowledge

I am particularly passionate about knowledge sharing. I often recall Michelle Obama’s quote in 2012; “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give others the same chances that helped you succeed”. This inspires me as it shows that opportunities should be shared by all, and you should bring people on your journey where possible.

Be True to Yourself

I completed an Accelerated Advanced Level programme, which is AS and A2 in one year. I failed to make the minimum grades to study on the MEng programme at Loughborough University, and I was rejected by my first-choice university back in 2008. I recall feeling very disappointed, like it was the end of the road for me and my ambitions. Reflecting back on this experience, however, I believe that I had set an unrealistic goal for myself.

By being true to myself – and my capabilities – I now set more realistic goals. I may fail, and will make mistakes but these are proof that I am trying. During my PhD, I learnt that failure is a necessary part of the learning process. Just because an experiment fails, does not mean that you abandon the project. You can gain as much – or even more knowledge and experience – from a failure, as well as a success.

And to the young women thinking of pursuing careers in engineering, if you have the passion, go for it!

I strongly believe in the Venn diagram analogy that engineering is the intersection between scientific knowledge and societal need, with both creative and analytical capability for real world problem solving. There’s no gender discrimination in that definition so don’t exclude yourself from contributing, or deprive us of your skills, talent, knowledge and ideas to solve problems.

Never downgrade your dream to match your reality, but work hard, remain focused and most importantly, enjoy the process of working towards achieving your goals. If you have a dream, ambition or goal that feels overwhelming, break it down into tiny bite-size milestones. As you achieve your milestones, you are getting closer to your overall goal.

Dr Ozak Esu is a winner of the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards for the Institution of Engineering and Technology.