NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Podcast: Women in physics, women in Africa

Two female researchers tell Julie Gould about their efforts to inspire other women to become scientists

Listen to Alexandra Olaya-Castro and Mirjana Pović talk about diversity in science.

Alexandra Olaya-Castro describes experiences she faced earlier in her career and how she now draws on them to support female colleagues as professor of physics at University College London.

"Like any stereotype you can only break it down by doing what you really think is right. But you also need a network of colleagues that you can trust. The advice I give to both men and women is that if there is a minority in any group, pay them attention. Be sensitive to that person," she says.

And astrophysicist Mirjana Pović, winner of Nature Research’s inaugural Inspiring Science Award, one of two prizes developed in partnership with The Estée Lauder Companies, describes her efforts to encourage African women and girls to pursue science careers, a role she juggles alongside her own research at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute in Addis Ababa and the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up

Transcript

Listen to Alexandra Olaya-Castro and Mirjana Pović talk about diversity in science.

Julie Gould:

Hello, and welcome to the Nature Careers Podcast. I’m Julie Gould. This month, the Nature Careers Podcast is celebrating women in science and we’re doing that by showcasing the first winners of two annual awards set up by Nature Research, in partnership with The Estée Lauder Companies.

One award focuses on innovation in science while the second one on inspiration, and for this episode I caught up with the inaugural winner of the Inspiring Science Award...

Mirjana Pović

Then when we come to the African reality, it has a factor of multiplication because there is huge lack of reference, like there is a huge lack of women in science and technology so therefore for young girls it’s much more difficult to really be inspired to be empowered for doing science.

Julie GouldBut I also share a story of one very successful woman in physics who has had to face some barriers along the way....

Alexandra Olaya-Castro

To gather a network of these colleagues that will be supportive and that you can trust is one of the most important things that you need to achieve to be able to make through your way to these barriers because like any stereotype, you can only break it by doing what you really think is right, but you yourself do not break fully a stereotype. You need a network to break that stereotype.

Julie Gould

Professor Alexandra Olaya-Castro works on the interface between computational physics and biology in her own lab at University College London. She’s been running this lab for ten years now – happy birthday, by the way – and although she’s made her career a great success, it’s not been without its barriers. Subtle and probably often not-so-subtle sexism has plagued her throughout her career, given that she’s working in what has traditionally been known as a very male-dominated field. But what she’s taken away from it is the lessons that she can now share with her team to make sure that they don’t experience these barriers in the same way as she did.

It’s a well-known fact that physics is a very male-dominated field and although there are female physicists, I’ve heard from a lot that it’s actually quite difficult to sort of face some of the barriers that might be unspoken but that do exist. So, I just want to know, how did you make your career work and what examples of those barriers have you had that you can share with us?

Alexandra Olaya-Castro

As a woman, it can be a very lonely career in terms of not having many other females surrounding you or in the group you that work, or not even in the group that you form because sometimes recruiting even females is quite hard. Along the way, one of the things that has helped me to overcome the barriers that come with being the only woman in the room, let’s say, has been there’s a strong focus of what I want to achieve, and this has been very important because sometimes the context can play a very strong, detrimental effect if you don’t have that clarity, so let me give you examples. So, for instance, when I was a PhD student in the group that I was, it was mostly men and myself for a couple of years, and even though they were all friendly, they were really nice people, whenever it came to social gatherings, I was not part of their social gatherings. Now, I’m not so sure whether the reason was because I was a woman or because I was a foreigner. It’s difficult to really pinpoint the reason, but the fact is I wasn’t necessarily part of these social gatherings. But I repeat, they were friendly, I was friendly with them etc. There was nothing contentious or a conflict of any kind, it just simply happened in that case. And so on, as you go along, as you go up in the career ladder, the field becomes even lonelier, I have to say, and sometimes you do find yourself being the one woman in a hundred. I have found very supportive colleagues, that they see you for who you are – the scientist and regardless of anything else. But of course, I have faced my fair share of sexism within this context as well. I can give you plenty of examples.

Julie Gould

A lot of it is unspoken, shall we say.

Alexandra Olaya-Castro

Absolutely, yeah. A lot of it is given because the dynamics are so much like that, that it seems natural that it happens. This has many implications, not only for the opportunities that can be denied to you, not because they consciously say we’re going to deny this opportunity, just simply because the opportunity is not open to you. It has detrimental aspects on your career but also in science itself. The science that can be done when you have diverse groups is very different from the science that can be done when it’s done by the same line of thinking people. This is without removing any merit on the science that has been done so far, but I think it can become greater if those things like that are diverse, and I really think so.

Julie Gould

How have you faced these barriers, apart from you’ve already said being focused on your goal and I guess powering through in a way? What else have you done to make a success of your career?

Alexandra Olaya-Castro

Yeah, so I would say two things: some things that are depending mostly on me and some things that do not depend entirely on me. So, the things that depend on me is this focus and also this belief in the science that I do, and looking for those opportunities of presenting my work myself. This brings me to the other thing that does not depend entirely on me, and it’s that you will bump into people who will not be supportive but you will bump into people that will be very supportive, and to gather a network of these colleagues that will be supportive and that you can trust is one of the most important things that you need to achieve to be able to make through your way to these barriers because like any stereotype, you can only break it by you doing what you really think is right, but you yourself do not break fully a stereotype. You need a network to break down a stereotype and joining forces with these people who are ready to support that is the most important thing, and I’ve been luckily enough to count on the support some of these people.

Julie Gould

And I imagine that as a group leader now and you’re running your own research, you come across other younger physicists, female physicists, potentially female physicists who are also from minority groups like yourself – you’re from Latin America – and who also can feel isolated. So, how do you help them work through some of those issues that they might be facing, given that you’ve potentially faced them yourself as well.

Alexandra Olaya-Castro

At the moment, I have had women in my group and I have actively looked for excellent candidates that can join the group and I’ve been lucky enough to find those candidates and what they have found through that is the fact that they have joined a female group was already an ease for them. I have a PhD student and she often says 'it’s so nice to be able to have a discussion with you, not only about the science but also about my insecurities without feeling scared that I’m going to be judged for those insecurities.' So, I think that that is one of the things I do and as a supervisor, I’ve been there so I always remind her, and also my male students because they also face other difficulties, that I’ve been there. And by having been there, they will solve it differently than I did, but I can guide them through how you might go about it, so I’ve done that. But the advice that I in general try to give both to the male and to the women because this is something that is going to be solved by everyone, not only by one, is that whenever you are in these groups, when you see someone who is the minority, immediately pay attention. If you see there is only one woman and three men, this woman will be the minority. Sometime it happens the opposite, it could be three men and one woman so it happens the same, whenever someone is in the minority, pay attention. Be sensitive to this person and put yourself in those shoes because being the minority, you will be exposed to situations that will undermine your progress. So, this is what I would advise and what I have said before too.

Julie Gould

Thank you, Professor Alexandra Olaya-Castro.

So, continuing on the subject of women in science and coincidentally with physics, astrophysicist Mirjana Pović was awarded the inaugural Inspiring Science Award from Nature Research, in partnership with The Estée Lauder Companies, earlier this month. In 2016, Pović got the chance to follow her dreams and work in Africa. She moved to Ethiopia and then helped establish the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute. It’s the first centre of its kind in Ethiopia and also in the whole of the East Africa region. Since then, she’s become head of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, but as well as working to establish the centre, Pović has worked extremely hard to help promote science, technology, engineering and maths career paths to secondary school children, particularly the young women across the country and the region, and it’s her hard work in this particular project that earned her the award. I had a chat with Mirjana about why she thinks these young girls need some more visible female role models in these subjects.

Congratulations on being awarded the Nature Research Award for Inspiring Science.

Mirjana Pović

Thank you, thank you very much. Yeah, it was totally unexpected from my side of course, but I mean I always say that everything that I managed to do until now, it is related with so many people and the entire society that in one way or another I interacted and that permitted at the end that so many things can be done.

Julie Gould

And what it is about working in Africa that you find so exciting?

Mirjana Pović

I’m very much attracted to learning about Africa, knowing Africa, understanding much better how Africa is, and then on the other side also, I really would like to participate with my work there where the needs are the highest, and I think that with participating in development of education and science can really contribute to the longer term to fight against poverty. Living, working in Africa and learning about Africa is like a book without end – something that you can never really finish – and in that aspect, it’s very similar to astronomy, and like our exploration of the Universe, it’s also something that we still have so many open questions that probably during my life, many of them will stay without answering.

Julie Gould

So, let’s talk a little bit about the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute. You’ve been involved with that from the very beginning, so tell me a little bit about the institute and how it’s been seeing it grow and flourish into something that it is today.

Mirjana PovićIt’s really challenging in many aspects, mainly because of the amount of work that we have.

Julie Gould

What kind of impact has the Space Science and Technology Institute in Ethiopia had on the students that you have?

Mirjana Pović

One of the things that I find especially important is that the institute here has a graduate programme, so all of our students are either a Master or PhD, but almost all of them are already lecturers at some of the public universities. So, it really means that if we increase the level of education of these people, although there are only few of them, it really contributes to the improvement of the education in the longer term.

Julie Gould

One of the other projects that you have is you are working to build a network of African women in astronomy and space science. Can you tell us a little bit about that and why you got involved with that?

Mirjana Pović

This network put together both more junior and senior ladies and we have like safe space where we can discuss different issues, get advice, then also exchange and create an email list so that we are connected and we can exchange all information that is relevant. Strength more the support of the senior researchers over the younger ones that are just starting, trying also to follow how many of those ladies that finish their masters continue with the PhD, and those that continue with the PhD stay in the field. Now with the award I really got motivated to like take the first steps and the real actions in order to make this kind of network something that is real.

Julie Gould

Tell me a little bit about some of the challenges that women face in your field of space and astronomy research in Africa.

Mirjana Pović

I wouldn’t separate totally between Africa and the rest of the world. So, I think that for women in science in general, independent of if it’s Africa or whatever, there are still many more challenges then in the case of the male population. Then when you come to the African reality, it has a factor of multiplication because there is huge lack of reference, like there is a huge lack of women in science and technology, so therefore for young girls it’s much more difficult to really be inspired to be empowered for doing science. There is a lack of support from the family, especially when we are talking about science, engineering, technology and mathematics. There is still quite a lot of opinion that this is not for girls, it’s not for women so in that aspect still there is really a lot to do. Then the pressure from the society on being a mother – being a mother in Africa is fundamental. It’s a very important part of the society and life everywhere, but family is very, very important in Africa. It is very much related with religion as well. Here I can see with my colleagues from the Society of Ethiopian Women in Science and Technology, it is extremely challenging for them. Many of them are doing their master’s, their PhD and at the same time they have several children already. And then even if they get to the position of professors or lecturers at the university, to upgrade their level it’s extremely, extremely difficult. They have to have publications, they have to have so many merits and at the end, it’s exhausting, they cannot, it’s very challenging.

Julie Gould

Do they not have any childcare support?

Mirjana Pović

Yes, they can have childcare support, like those that are already at the university and they can afford. The others, they don’t really have support and even if they had support, still when they get home, they still will have more things to do than the male population.

Julie Gould

One of the things that you have been awarded the Inspiring Science Award for is your work with the local school children. What is it that you do with the local school children?

Mirjana Pović

Yes, so the idea is it’s in collaboration with the Society of Ethiopian Women in Science and Technology. The work is with the secondary school girls, in particular grades 9 and 10 here in Ethiopia, which is just before they choose the preparatory school, and the preparatory school is already somehow related with the specific fields. So, the project is that we want to access as many girls as possible at this secondary school level, especially in the remote and rural areas, and every month the ladies, so through the Society of Ethiopian Women in Science and Technology, would come from different fields of science and then the main idea behind is one side to bring closer different fields of science to the girls. So, the lady will give one part of the talk that is more like the outreach talk, just related with her field of research, and then the other part of the talk is a life story. So, how that lady became a scientist, how is the life of a scientist, how is being a scientist and being a woman, how is being a scientist and being a mother, what are the challenges, what are the positive things that the science is giving, and so on. And then in the same time, it’s also important to do like a small research so that we use the opportunity that we have access to so many girls and to study grand factors that are related. So, we pass the questionnaire to the girls where they have to reply if they are planning to go to the university or not – if yes, why yes, if not, why not – so that at the end like we put the objective of about one year in order to see what kind of statistics we will get in order to evaluate some of the main factors responsible for the lack of girls and then women in science and technology fields, and to come up with the suggestions and better ideas for the future planning.

Julie Gould

So, what kind of results have you seen already from surveys like this one that you’ve described?

Mirjana Pović

In Uganda, one of my colleagues, they did a small study with a secondary school girls but it was just like on a discussion level. And the secondary school girls raised two main factors why they don’t choose the science and technology subjects. The first one was the lack of support from their families, and the second one was related with the textbooks. They raised that always in the textbooks since they started with their school, there is a lack, like everything related with science was related with men, with the male population. So, it was they are not used to really thinking about doing something related with science because they never saw women really in their textbooks or, as I said, as teachers and educators.

Julie Gould

Thank you, and congratulations again to Mirjana Pović.

So, you can find out more about the winners at nature.com/careers, and if you want to find out more about the awards or perhaps even enter next year, you can go to the awards website. But that’s it for this episode. You can follow the Nature Careers adventures on our website at nature.com/careers, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.