I was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania with family roots in Usangi, near Mount Kilimanjaro. I was lucky. My parents were community organizers in our village, educated in finance and economics during pre-independent Tanzania. They were not scientists, but they had a clear vision for all their six children—that we would all study science. So it was a bit of a nudge followed by encouragement. They were firm believers that we needed a strong grounding in science so we could analyze the world and do anything we wanted to. They believed science provided strong analytical foundation and flexibility to pursue either science or non-science careers later in life. I am grateful for my parents’ vision of science for their girls and boys.
We were an unusual family compared to the norm in East Africa at that time. Some of my brothers are now doctors, engineers, accountants, and I have a sister who audits information technology systems for a living. A lot of people commented that it wasn’t the “right profession for women” but I was drawn to science because I was curious. And no matter what else I do in life now, I find I have that tendency to prod people and ideas a bit more than is typical.
How hard was it to grow up in East Africa with an interest in science?
In the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was growing up, there were a lot of good missionary schools which had a strong grounding in science. But it was not common for a girl to take physics, chemistry and biology. I had a wonderful headmistress and mentor, Mama Kamm, who believed that girls should do science, and cooking, and needlework! I then obtained a degree in immunology and biochemistry. But it became clear to me how male-dominated this field really was when I went to science competitions or events, and found myself one of the very few women participating. It seemed daunting at the time, but it helped me build the resilience I would later need to work in other male-dominated environments. That, and growing up with four brothers and a family that allowed me to compete with them.
What obstacles did you face when you left Tanzania?
I went to Glasgow, Scotland to pursue a science degree and found that if there were few women studying science at university, even fewer were from Africa. So there, I became a young African woman scientist. It was isolating, and I really had no one to look up to as a role model. This was one of the hardest parts of pursuing science. When I moved to Canada to study microbiology and immunology, it was clear that I had to work much harder than my male colleagues because expectations were so much lower for me as an African woman. I also learned that I needed to develop my own support networks for my science ambition. Because I was abroad, I had to be open to networking with non-Tanzanians: my interest in science became the glue of some of the relationships I developed then.
What perceptions need to change so more girls and women choose science as a career?
Family perception is everything. I was lucky, but not many are. Second, is the perception of your peer group. A lot of who you become in life is influenced by the people around you in your formative years. Third, societal pressure is a big hindrance. How are you perceived by your neighbours, or your friends or teachers? I think that as a girl in science you have to find a way to persevere despite those three levels of pressure. It is important to find how to build networks of women like yourself, and call on them for support and reassurance. Many of my classmates in the girls boarding school where I grew up run important scientific institutions in Tanzania, and even now, no matter where I am in the world, I reach out to this group of friends for support. Our headmistress Mama Kamm transformed the science and girls agenda in Tanzania—we still look up to her for inspiration and admiration. We have our own cohort of women who studied science. But you also have to remember that your network has to include men, because as women, we can learn from them and also count on them as our champions to change some of the misconceptions about girls and science. For example, in my case, I observed early on that my male peers tended to question authority and decisions much more than I did. When I first left Tanzania to study science, it never occurred to me to ask why my paper hadn’t been published, but a man will never shy away from asking that question. I decided to learn from these colleagues and adjusted my professional behavior accordingly.
How can more girls and women choose science as a career?
You have to address self-doubt because expectations from women are often very different and lower than from our male peers. We need to have many more role models. When I was growing up, there were not many women I could look up to and think “I want to be like her.” But technology has made finding these role models so much easier today. We need to use our personal stories to inspire girls. Science provided me with the fundamental DNA to do anything in my life. So while I started my career as a researcher, I later branched out to public health and policy, and today, to environment. It was my scientific foundation that made this possible. This is what I really enjoy about my new role at UN Environment: we inform the global environmental agenda through work that is grounded in science. And so the curiosity continues.
What opportunities do environmental science offer?
Environmental science is a rapidly expanding field, and as our awareness of environmental issues grows, there are more career options within environmental science for girls and women. You can pursue a degree in public health and decide to focus on environmental pollution, for example. So there are many more opportunities and options. For women, life is never clear cut and dry, no matter how much we try—we are far more nuanced in our approach to just about anything, including science. This is why I feel environmental science can only become stronger if we have more women in research, because we often bring the human angle into the science. For us to make a difference in this field, we have to start with and think of people and humanity—the social aspects of environment are equally important. These are exciting opportunities for girls and women!