What sharing a birthday with the celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science has taught me as an African woman scientist

This day is celebrated on 11th February

Source: UNESCO website

As far as my memory goes, I have always celebrated my birthdays since I was a child. My dear mother socialized me into this idea , as a few of those birthdays she hosted some parties, baked a cake and we have some photos to remind us of those moments. I am grateful for that childhood experience as it made me conscious of what birthdays are. Even though the celebration of it has changed over the years, to date, I mark my birthday.

In 2017, I worked with Dr. Pacificah Okemwa in a project where she was the Secretary for NASAC Women in Science Working Group. This project compiled stories of 30 African women scientists across 18 countries in Africa. Reading through those stories sparked something in me. Up to that point, I had never really defined myself as a scientist. It bothered me that despite the fact that I was currently engaged in practice and research in the science of occupational health and safety, I still didn’t think I was worthy of the title scientist. Granted, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science was declared in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, hence I didn’t engage with any advocacy content about women and girls in science. In fact, I first came across the advocacy about the day on Twitter with #AfricanWomeninScience in 2017. In a nutshell, my awareness regarding being an African woman in science was as a result of the interaction between those stories, the hashtag and being a postgraduate student pursuing a Master of Science in Occupational health and safety.

What does it look like to see yourself in others achievements?

Representation matters. Reading and hearing stories of women who looked like me, interacted with almost similar systems and began their journey as I did was quite inspiring. In the years that followed 2017 I have been able to achieve a number of things that affirm my contribution to the field of environmental and occupational health sciences.

My highlights are as follows:

  • I had my first ever poster presentation in the 2018 International Commission of Occupational Health (ICOH) triennium scientific conference. The conference was held in Dublin, Ireland and I had been awarded a partial travel grant by ICOH for the conference.
  • After the Dublin experience I challenged myself further, I submitted another abstract for a poster presentation for the World Congress on Safety and Health. My abstract was accepted and subsequently was awarded a fellowship to travel to Canada for the conference. Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic begun and this was rescheduled to a virtual event that took place in October , 2021.
  • Just recently, from 6th — 10th February , 2022, I had an oral presentation in the ICOH triennium conference that was held virtually too. I was also awarded a grant to participate in this conference.
  • In between all this, I have managed to publish a scientific paper on occupational injuries among artisanal and small-scale gold miners in Kakamega County, Kenya. I also managed to graduate in 2021 with a Master of Science in Occupational Health and Safety having successfully completed a thesis whose research was on injuries in artisanal and small-scale gold miners.
Source: UNESCO

Reflecting on these achievements on 11th February , 2022, I couldn’t help but wonder, why didn’t I consider myself a woman in science? I had been walking with the burden of being an imposter.Unknowingly, the thinking that being in a laboratory with glass jars, machines, pipettes and wearing lab coats was what a “true scientist” was had been my definition of one. Hence, I never thought that my contributions and current practice are indeed science. I write this piece to acknowledge my own contribution to the world of science, and to continue to motivate myself to the never ending journey of learning and to salute all the women and girls in science.

Telling our stories will indeed have an impact in encouraging full access and participation of girls and women in the various fields of science.

NB: My journey as a scientist began as a child reading through my fathers pharmaceutical books and reading all the patient information leaflets in every medication in our house. In high school I was exposed to learning Chemistry, biology and physics for 4 years. I then proceeded to University where I pursued a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health. This was then followed by my post graduate studies and various short courses in occupational health and safety.

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Winnie Rabera

Educator|| Social and internet Justice enthusiast||Multidisciplinary scholar||- Currently churning out knowledge in occupational health|| Mozilla contributor.