Society needs to instil confidence in girls

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Students study during a chemistry experiment in a laboratory at the Asian University for Women. Copyright: Panos

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Society needs to help girls be more confident about their abilities about maths and science, according to Jennifer Thomson, the executive president of the Organisation for Women Scientists for the Developing World (OWSD), a body that aims to nurture female researchers in the global South.

Thomson is the winner of the 2004 L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science for Africa prize, and the first woman to head a department at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She now wants to increase OWSD’s representation around the world and appoint ambassadors who can help open doors to aspiring female scientists in the developing world.

Jennifer Thomson 3
Jennifer Thomson, executive president OWSD

She spoke to SciDev.Net about her motivations as a scientist and the barriers she has faced in her career.

Briefly describe to us your career journey and what drove you.

I undertook undergraduate studies in BSc Zoology at the University of Cape Town and went to Cambridge for an MA in Zoology, but found the department too old-fashioned, so I switched to genetics. Here I worked on plants and later did a PhD in bacterial genetics at Rhodes University in South Africa. I later enrolled at Harvard University in the US for post-doctoral studies; at this time genetic engineering had just started, so I worked on genetically modified (GM) bacteria.
Interestingly, I didn’t have a specific goal in life — [I] just did what interested me, [and I] decided not to have children as in those days it was too difficult to get ahead as a woman. I wouldn’t want any other women scientist to have to make that sacrifice.

Do you consider yourself successful, or do you feel you have more ground to cover?

I will consider myself successful when our potentially drought-tolerant maize becomes a commercial reality for African farmers.

Are there any challenges in your career that you feel came your way simply because you were a woman?

When I became head of department of the microbiology department at the University of Cape Town, I was put on every committee that needed a female! I nearly drowned in committees. However this helped me to network and meet useful people.

In general terms, what are some of the major challenges that young female scientists face in the developing world?

Paternalism. This is rife in many developing countries. The best way to overcome this is to show the men just how good you are and don’t be intimidated by them!

You have a rich CV, and a long association with the OWSD even before rising to president of the executive board. Where do you wish to take the organisation during your term?

I am chair of the South African national chapter of OWSD. The first thing I did as president was to open membership to social scientists — natural scientists need them to make their research amenable and acceptable to society — and to [open membership to] men: as long as both groups share our goals. We need the support of men to achieve our potential.
I would want to see more national chapters opened to support our fellows and early-career scientists as mentors. The importance of good mentorship cannot be overestimated.

Which areas of the world need more representation in OWSD?

Africa is very well represented in OWSD, although we will strive to increase our presence by opening more national chapters. However, Latin America is lagging. We need to have more activities there.

Are there things that you feel you must achieve during your term as OWSD Chair?

I would like to appoint ambassadors of OWSD in the developing world, to help our members and fellows to attend international events and open opportunities for them.

Your work at the University of Cape Town presumably involves supervising graduate students and research in the lab and field. Is this something you enjoy, and what are your experiences like as lecturer?

I love teaching more than anything. The thrill of getting through to students, and making them understand complex concepts, is a great experience. I also enjoy supervising graduate students, but I prefer working with those who are independent thinkers and bring new ideas of their own to their projects.

A lot of girls, for example in many African countries, grow up in school ‘fearing’ mathematics and sciences, which are the very basis for a career in the sciences. What would you advise them and their teachers as a mentor?

The notion that girls and women are not good at maths or sciences is a complete fallacy. This needs to be changed in the home, as well as at primary and secondary schools. We must instil confidence in girls to believe that they are just as good, if not better than, the boys!

This is part of a SciDev.Net article series on Role Models.