April 23, 2021

Astrophysics that fights so that African girls can also be scientific | Science

Astrophysics that fights so that African girls can also be scientific | Science

The Serbian Mirjana Pović (Pançevo, 1981) was only nine years old when the Yugoslav wars began. At school, there was a lack of educational material and motivation among the staff. Outside of it, he faced strong social and family tension. The conflict lasted 10 years, but the effects much more: "My family before the war was of lower middle class, but during the war the middle class disappeared". Shortly after Pović began the career of astrophysics at the University of Belgrade. Every day I had to travel more than 20 kilometers from Pançevo to the capital and "I did not even have to pay for transportation". For that reason, I hitchhiked to be able to go to class. Even so, she managed to graduate and today she is a teacher Ethiopian Institute of Space Science and Technology Y a reference for many girls that live in conditions of poverty.

Her work to boost the interest of women in aerospace research has caught the attention of the scientific journal Nature and the company The Estée Lauder. Pović has received the award Nature Research Award in the category of inspiring science. This award, worth 10,000 euros, recognizes the achievements of young researchers and their efforts for other women to access the scientific field.

"In most of Sub-Saharan Africa families live on agriculture and livestock, have an average of four or five children and the resources for children to go to school are very limited," he says. Although more and more girls have access to primary and secondary education, everything gets complicated when they have to go to a school in another city or to the university. "Poverty does not affect the whole society in the same way. The women suffer the most. Boys are still given priority so they can study, "says astrophysics.

This doctor has taught in orphanages and taught street children in Tanzania, South Africa and Rwanda. He has also trained the first generations of master's and doctoral students in Astronomy in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. Now she intends to use the award to launch the STEM for Girls Ethiopia project, which aims to give visibility to women scientists and promote vocation between high school students to do STEM careers (acronyms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

She became interested in astronomy when she was a child. Every day he looked at the sky and wondered what the Moon and the Sun were. "We have a laboratory on top of us [el cielo]. I was very curious and thought: 'When I grow up I will understand where this light comes from and those points of heaven.' At that time I already had a passion for Africa. In 2005 she obtained a scholarship to do a doctorate at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and began saving to go to work as a volunteer to the third largest continent on the planet.

"Poverty does not affect the whole society in the same way. The women suffer the most. Boys are still given priority so they can study "

Since 2016, this doctor linked to the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia teaches and supervises students studying a master's and doctorate at the Ethiopian Institute of Space Science and Technology. There, the main problem in offering quality training is "the lack of qualified personnel". Of the 111 employees at the institute-among which are also administrative and financial workers and support staff-only five have a doctorate. And of those five, she is the only woman.

The lack of staff makes it difficult to dedicate time to their own projects. But whenever he can he tries to advance his investigations in extragalactic astronomy. Specifically, it studies the properties of active galaxies: "From them we receive much higher energies and luminosities than from normal galaxies and they are one of the brightest objects we have in the universe." For example, it analyzes what is the role of these active galaxies in the evolution and formation of galaxies in general, how they have evolved throughout cosmic time or what are the properties of those that have very low luminosity.

This lack of time to progress in the projects is one of the problems that many women scientists face African "Having a family in Africa is a must. It is difficult to find women who do not have children. When they return home, the weight is not shared in the same way between men and women. They are the ones who normally take care of the housework and take care of their children, "he says.

However, for these women the difficulties begin much earlier. Biases about the ability of women to perform certain jobs are present from an early age. In a study published in 2017 in the journal Science, children were asked if, when they were told about a particularly intelligent person, they thought it was their sex or the opposite. When the children were five years old, no differences were observed, however, starting at age six, the probability that the girls considered that the bright person was of their sex descended.

"Since we were little we have always been overprotected all over the world. We are shown that we are more fragile and that trust that others do not have in us remains engraved forever, "says Pović. In order to put an end to these prejudices and encourage vocations among girls, it is essential to have female references: "If since we are little we do not have references of women in mathematics or physics, how are we going to choose one of these fields when we ask ourselves the question?".

Fighting these stereotypes and getting girls to be scientists in Africa or anywhere in the world "does not correspond only to teachers, mothers or women leaders." "It's a work of society," says astrophysics. For her, it is essential to inform that this type of bias exists to try to avoid them both in schools and on the Internet and the media. Creating links between women scientists to support each other and to be inspired is also very useful. Pović, for example, is part of the Spanish organization MY T (Association of Women Researchers and Technologists).

It also considers ending poverty and investing in development projects in education and equality policies "It's going to be good for the girls." Astrophysics advocates positive discrimination until men and women have the same possibilities: "Give more scholarships and opportunities to women to try to get the best out of them." She gives priority to girls who study at the institute when supervising their projects and is convinced that change is possible little by little. Proof of this is that she has supervised the first girl in Rwanda who has taken a master's degree in Astronomy and is doing a PhD. The idea is that more and more women work as mathematicians, physicists or astronomers and teach at universities. That is, there are more references so that girls in Africa also want and can be scientific.

Why it is important to invest in science in Africa

Why is it important to invest in scientific development programs instead of solving basic problems in Africa such as access to electricity, water or sanitation? Pović has the answer: "In the last few decades we have only invested in basic goods, but it is also essential to have long-term scientific, technological and industrial development projects. Only in this way can countries be removed from the situation they have been facing for years. " Places like Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia or Botswana have already begun to invest in scientific projects. The Ethiopian Institute of Space Science and Technology, in which astrophysics is a professor and researcher, is a project founded in 2016 that seeks long-term results. The objective is to use spatial and satellite data to face one of the biggest challenges in the country, such as access to water. With this information, it is also intended to improve agricultural production, the electricity system (only 25% of the population has access to electricity), manage natural disasters, improve the infrastructure system and prepare urban plans.


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