International Day of Women and Girls in Science
In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015. We feel it is very important to highlight this day among the Ireland Fellows, alumni, and wider audience.
To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we interviewed three of the current Ireland Fellows to learn more about their passion for their field and how they have found navigating a male-dominated world of science.
We spoke to Alice Belinda John from Zimbabwe, who is studying the MSc in Innovative Technology Engineering at Southeast Technological University, Ha Thi Minh Phuong from Vietnam who is a PhD candidate in Computer Science in Atlantic Technological University, and Perpetua Loochi from Uganda, who is studying the MSc in Public Health in University College Dublin.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Alice: My name is Alice Belinda John. I come from Zimbabwe, and I am studying my Master’s in Innovative Technology Engineering at SETU, Waterford. The programme’s focus is divided into three major elements: technology, mainly emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and the possible convergence of these technologies for applications such as biomedical science; business strategy, which delves into technology management, product development and design, entrepreneurship, and strategies for innovation; and professional development, which focuses on development of personal skills relevant for my profession, e.g., flexibility. The program also involves an industry-based dissertation which is meant to sharpen me in my field of expertise (metallurgy) and broaden my knowledge of related fields and how they converge.
Phuong: My full name is Ha Thi Minh Phuong, I am from Danang, Vietnam. Currently, I am a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Faculty of Information Technology, University of Danang, Vietnam.
My major research is software testing, one of the most important fields in software engineering. My research goal is to accurately predict the fault vulnerability of software modules to maximize both the robustness and design quality of software artefacts. I am working on machine learning techniques and deep learning models to develop a robust model that works well in anticipating which software modules or code areas contain defects. Consequently, it will help to minimize maintenance costs as well as increasing availability and enhancing the overall end-use experience.
Perpetua: I come from the Karamoja region in Uganda, many will say it is the poorest part of the country, a region with the highest levels of illiteracy, the origin of the street children in Kampala city, but I am a very proud nomadic pastoralist from Karamoja, my daughter calls home “the land of mighty warriors”. It is a beautiful land with mountains and hills, and a very rich culture. Karamoja is my identity!
To contribute to a better story of Karamoja, I am currently doing my Master’s in Public Health at University College Dublin. I am studying the epidemiology of several health-related problems in the world including communicable and non-communicable diseases, determinants of health, sociology, health promotion, health finance and policy, SDGs and health, biostatistics and research.
When did you realise that you are passionate about science? Tell us more about how, and why you decided to study in science, what motivated you to take this path?
Alice: During my early years, up to high school it was not really about passion. I just went into science because I could and because I was good at it. After high school, however, I decided to study metallurgy because I was intrigued by the idea of having the knowledge and ability to take something from dirt and make it into something functional for everyday use. Car parts, aeroplanes, medical devices can all be formed from combining different metals and materials originating from the earth. Although science enables that, I would still not consider science a passion of mine. I do not think science can be a passion. It is like oxygen for my dreams, it fuels them and keeps them alive.
Phuong: Science has always been one of my favourite subjects. I found my passion the moment I took an artificial intelligence course. I always have questions about why and how can Google Translate translate text, documents and websites from one language into another? Or how to identify specific people in photos or videos in some applications like Facebook. Therefore, I decided to study math and artificial intelligence to have more opportunities to explore the cutting edges of science.
Perpetua: My father was a government health worker. I admired my father’s commitment to his work, and after he quit, he started farming and continued to serve in a private clinic serving the local community as he needed more money to support our education. I am a proud child of my father’s sacrifices and hard work.
During my school holidays, my father invited me to support him in the clinic. My role was to set up the place for patients/clients, receive clients and collect payments, and pick the drugs needed for them. As time went on, I started to dispense since I had mastered his mentions of doses and instructions to patients, and I had known most drugs and prices too. I still recall how crowded the clinic would get. He saved many lives and to date, many people in our village love him because of what he did for them or their loved ones.
Growing up in that environment made me want to become a medical doctor, to be able to save lives and to help people. However, the grades I got in my O-level were not good enough for me to do a medical course at university. For my diploma, I did Guidance and Counselling to start with, volunteered at Makerere University hospital in the HIV/AIDS department as a counsellor and later went to the field as a health promoter in the rural communities. It was in the field that I got a passion for primary healthcare. I told myself that I still can save lives at this level, and it turns out to be the most influential level of healthcare. I have now specialised in primary healthcare, and most of my practice is in WASH and nutrition programming at the community level.
Do you have any positive female role models active in your field of study that you look up to?
Alice: My mother. Her teachings, both the ones I hear and observe have tremendously influenced how I approach life. My mother is a determined woman who pushes the boundaries to achieve her goals. She taught me that nothing and no one can stand in the way of realising my dreams. I have never been intimidated to venture into the most daunting experiences. She is a fighter who stands unmoved for what she believes in. I have learnt from a young age to do likewise. She is not a scientist or an engineer but my mother loves, especially her children, so bravely it is infectious. Everything I hope to be, everything I set my mind to I can achieve because I have learnt from my role model, my mother, that I can achieve anything if I just believe that I can.
Phuong: The Chairwoman of REE Electromechanical Company - Ms. Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh is the positive woman that I look up to. After graduating with a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering from Karl-Marx-Stadt University (Germany), in 1982, she joined REE as an engineer, where she later became the leader of the company in 1985. This was the first company listed on the Vietnam stock exchange in 2000. Forbes Magazine ranked her 28th in the list of 48 most powerful businesswomen in Asia 2014.
Perpetua: To be honest, I had none when I was growing up because even our village health team (VHT) were men for many years. It is now that I am reading about more women and getting motivated to take it further.
We would like to hear more about your study and working experience - how does it feel like to be a female studying and/or working in your field? Have you experienced any challenges so far?
Alice: I have worked as the only lady in the processing department at a gold mine. I felt special being the only lady in a male dominated environment. I also appreciated how I could exist and function in that space as a metallurgist without being deemed inadequate because I am a female. My mentors guided and corrected me as they would any other person and without partiality. No experience is without a fair share of challenges so of course there were tough days, but I believe I emerged a better professional.
Phuong: After I competed my Bachelor's Degree in Information Technology at the University of Science and Technology, I was a Java developer at FPT software company in Danang city. Then, I became a lecturer in Viet-Han University of Information and Communication Technology. I decided to enrol in the PhD research course for the opportunity to further study and research. I was so excited to study different mathematic concepts which are used to construct Machine Learning models. Everything from the technology of a Tesla vehicle, Netflix’s recommendation algorithms, or speech-to-text recognition on the iPhone represents an innovation in machine learning. Because machine learning is an essential field in the tech industry, there’s plenty to learn about its continuing effect on our devices each day.
Perpetua: Getting my first formal job as a health promoter/WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) officer was the best thing that ever happened to me in my career because it laid a foundation for me to explore my love for science and health. When I started, I was the only female in my department of four. I then joined Concern Worldwide as an Environmental Health Assistant in December 2015, again as the only female in a team of six. It was in late 2016 when I joined the nutrition program that I now had female colleagues in the team, got back to WASH in 2017 in another district out of the region where I then met more female staff. It is in my recent role with Save the Children when we were five females in a team of 17.
For my bachelor’s in public health, I did it for myself as one of the investments I had to do for my career. I was working in the Moroto district and studying in the Soroti district on weekends, travelling over 100 km to and from, leaving Moroto on Friday evening after work and returning on Sunday night to start work on Monday morning. I recall the journeys I made when pregnant and later travelling with my little baby to and from school. It was challenging but I am glad that I finally graduated with a second-class upper in March 2019.
What are your future career aspirations? What would be you dream job? What are you hoping to achieve?
Alice: I aspire to be an engineering materials specialist developing and designing medical devices. My dream job would be creating jobs and opportunities for people to improve their livelihoods. My long-term goal is to own a MedTech company.
Phuong: My ambition is to focus on expanding Vietnam’s Global Partnerships within education, software fields and transferring knowledge from Ireland to Vietnam in teaching, learning, research, and innovation in the upcoming years. I will concentrate on engaging local companies in Ireland, with the hope of connecting them with software-based companies in Vietnam, to increase collaboration by exchanging experience, sharing insights, transferring technology and so on.
Perpetua: For my career, I aspire to be a public health senior consultant/advisor/specialist serving the local and rural communities, bringing change and impact to the lives of the less privileged and vulnerable people. My dream job is to become an influential policymaker. I hope to achieve or at least contribute to SDG number six, specifically for the poor and vulnerable population ensuring that they too have access to a safe, clean and healthy environment, water and health services.
The most important question that a modern professional can ask is not “what do I do?” But “what am I part of?” I am looking forward to being part of the team influencing lasting and sustainable changes in the lives of poor and vulnerable people.
How is the Ireland Fellows Programme as well as your studies and experiences in Ireland helping you achieve your goals?
Alice: The Ireland Fellows Programme gave me an amazing opportunity to study the fun program I am enrolled in at SETU. The Master’s in Innovative Technology Engineering is uniquely tailored to perfectly drive me towards my goals. I get to learn how to learn, how to apply what I learn and how to become a functional engineer and member of society. With Ireland being a hub for MedTech companies, it gives me great exposure which feeds into my goals.
Phuong: Ireland Fellows Programme brings a huge opportunity to study in Ireland and develop my doctoral thesis with outstanding results. The standard of education in Ireland is proven based on the presence of many of the world’s largest multi-national companies having major operations in Ireland. During my one-year placement in Ireland, I will be mentored by accomplished professors in computer science and software development – they are responsible for supervising my research project and can share the benefits of their own experience and knowledge as a critical part, in the success of my research. Additionally, I will have the opportunity to connect with staff and peers across the university. These professional networks will be beneficial during my research degree and will establish possible future connections for my post-doctoral and future academic career.
Perpetua: The Ireland Fellows Programme has given me an opportunity to achieve my dream of saving lives, they granted me a place to study/learn more knowledge to be able to help my people in Karamoja, the vulnerable people in the world. My course is taking me to a deeper understanding of the health problems in the community and world. It is not just what it looks like, there is more to why people are having the health problems they have, and why they live and behave the way they do. Most of it is preventable and it is possible. I am also getting more knowledge on global health issues and their determinants.
What would you say to the girls who are interested in science, what message would you send to them?
Alice: I would say getting into science is an adventure you should go for. Be willing to put in the work to achieve your goals and be confident in your femininity. It will be an amazing experience!
Phuong: Being a scientist – and by chance a female one – is a very dynamic job with challenging missions. Having the opportunity to contribute to the knowledge of a scientific field or to the well-being of another human is an amazing thing. I believe that “if you believe yourself, nothing can stop you and never give up under any circumstances, keep going.”
Perpetua: We are not any different from our male counterparts, let us grab the opportunities while they are still available for us. The time is now so let’s rise up and take positions, attention may change soon. Please give yourself the opportunity to serve and to be served, it is therapy to help, to save lives, to be happy so be happy.