Meet 8 African women who just became 2014 L’Oreal-UNESCO science fellows

For the last 16 years, L’Oreal, partnering with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), has been running an incredible global campaign to celebrate scientific achievements and excellence by women.

Called For Women in Science, the idea is both to celebrate achievement, focus grants on important research and create role models for young women thinking about a scientific career.

The main awards are usually presented in March and create five laureates (one from each of five geographical areas) and 15 International Fellows. Throughout the year, however, dozens more women are honoured at smaller events in the build up to the final ceremony.

The programme is funded and run by the L’Oreal Foundation.

This year, 10 Fellows from around Africa have been selected to receive grants towards furthering their research in their respective fields, and put forward as candidates for the International Fellowship and Laureate programs. Nine of these extraordinary women were recently flown down to South Africa to attend a formal awards ceremony in Johannesburg (the tenth unfortunately could not make it) and the htxt.women team were fortunate enough to grab some time with eight of them.

Philiswa Nomngongo

In her postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Johannesburg, Dr Philiswa Nomngongo is focusing on the online separation/pre-concentration of trace elements in liquid fuel, food and environmental samples to determine their exact species using inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectrometry. Her goal is to develop protocols for sample preparation which overcome the challenges of matrix effects in inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.

“My postdoctoral work is based on the analysis of water pollutants. There are different sample matrixes – water, fuel, food, pharmaceutical products, etc. I analyse metals because some of them we need for our growth, things like iron and zinc, but if they are too much in the body, they become toxic. We need to look if the levels of those metals are acceptable (especially in water) and in fuel, metals are not needed at all. They cause engine damage but also environmental pollution. So I check the levels of the metal in the petrol, I check the purity.

“All my degrees were chemistry, but during honours I fell in love with analytical chemistry and the amazing things you can do with it. It’s very interesting because you don’t only cover one thing, you look for a wide variety of things and you can also develop some methods that can help us to be able to get information about the subject matter. With water, for example, what can we do and how much to we need to purify it. It really helps.

“When you look at South Africa, and you look at a field like science and technology, you always see men. As I was growing up, I told myself that I had to go somewhere and get somewhere. And once I got my PhD and postdoc work, I thought – yes, it is time for me to tell other young women that we can do it. It’s not a gender based thing, science is for everyone, we can all get into the field. But my advice to all women is that there is no limitation in education. All that we need is determination. We know what we want to be. Don’t lose hope. Press on. You’ll become the best woman in the world one day.

“When I started my PhD, I decided that one day I need to go back where I came from, to my village, and tell those women who are still in high school to study hard. It’s not about where you come from but rather about what you want to be in the next few years.

“With the L’Oréal-UNESCO grant money, my plan is to buy research equipment… but with a percentage I would love to sponsor one, young South African woman to do her Masters. I have this, and now it is my chance to pull someone new into the field and hopefully the next person will do the same. We’ll form a chain. It may be my postdoctoral work, but my aim is to get one woman do to her Masters in analytical chemistry.”

Omowunmi Isafiade

In her doctoral fellowship at the University of Cape Town,Omowunmi Isafiade is researching how the effective use of crime mining data can lead to the promotion of safe and secure smart cities. Centered on developing ubiquitous intelligence for these newly designed communities, the study is intended to generate a two stage hybrid model for tactical crime analysis.

LOreal_Omowunmi“My research is about crime situation recognition for improved public safety outcome. We’re looking to improve crime data analysis so that we can derive knowledge and provide information to the public safety authorities so that they can channel their resources to achieve specific crime targets, solving specific crime targets. So my research actually involves statistical techniques to achieve this purpose.

“I’ve published an article (based on a survey) where I’ve tried to do some really narrow analysis. We were able to mine crime data and then actually highlight locations of hotspots where crime is more prevalent.

“It’s so interesting to know that cities all over the world face a lot of challenges and in a bid to solve most of these challenges, there is a new initiative that is being developed that is called Smart City. So this Smart City initiative, in summary, makes use of information and communication technology to improve citizen’s wellness and, of course, assist the government to respond proactively to the needs of the citizens. Among the specific components of Smart City, I realized that safety is a very key issue because it’s only when a city is safe, that it can actually be smart. So now we talk about safe and smart cities and that is where safety comes in – my research is on the public safety approach to Smart City. I’m looking at crime situation recognition where we can use techniques to derive knowledge from crime data that is available. It is so interesting to know that the crime data that is being archived by the public safety authorities is so numerous, and it can be very overwhelming to do those analyses manually. So we need some kind of intelligence to really get some good knowledge from this data.

“My advice to women interested in this field is to go for it. Every woman has a potential in her so we shouldn’t underrate ourselves. I wouldn’t have thought that five years ago I would have come this far, but because I’ve held onto my dreams, I keep on going with it. I’ve come so far and am so glad to be at this point where I am so I want to encourage every women to go for it. Pursue your dream. Be focused. And you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.

“This award is so fantastic and motivating. I really look forward to using the money efficiently for my research work, to pursue equipment like a very good laptop to facilitate the analysis process. And also to motivate myself in terms of how to gather information about data and get in touch with public safety authorities to get information about the state of crime.”

Candice Rassie

Candice Rassie is researching multichannel electrochemical cytochrome P450 enzyme phenotype-nanobiosensor systems in her doctoral fellowship at the University of the Western Cape, with the outcome of developing a device to enable the tailoring of TB treatments consistent with patients’ needs and phenotypes.

LOreal_Candice“We specialise in electro-chemical biosensors. Basically, we use a biological molecule – in my case, an enzyme in the body which metabolises TB drugs. We then use this enzyme to determine the metabolic profile of a TB patient. With TB you get a six-month course of drugs or treatments, but each person has a different metabolism which means there are many times when a person can have hectic side effects like hepatitis and liver toxicity. We call them adverse drug reactions. So what we are trying to do is tailorise this TB treatment according to a TB patient’s metabolism. And we’re going to do this using a biosensor.

“We’re at the ground level still, a PhD is always a challenge. I was always interested to find out how things work in the body. I wanted to get to the nitty-gritty of things… My group is very involved with sensors and we have done similar work on TB drugs. This is something that is a huge thing in South Africa because of the amount of TB patients, the death rate and the number of TB patients that don’t finish their drug regimes and so on. What we’re trying to minimize the side effects so that the patients will finish their six-month course. If we can take away the side effects, people will be more encouraged to take their drugs.

“I’m hoping to be finished by PhD by the end of next year. L’Oréal is helping us tremendously with this award. What we can do with this money is actually make a device so we can take a sample from a TB patient and then determine their profile and tailorise the drugs for that person.

“It has been so rewarding and encouraging to meet all these scientists from all over Africa. Our fields are so different yet it is nice to so that there are so many women out there making a difference in science.

“Science in itself is such an indistinct field. Our group is also working with nanotechnology which is something so new and novel and you can make all these kinds of devices that are small and portable and its very innovative. That is what interests me the most, the innovation.”

Temitope Odetoye

In her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Ilorin, Temitope Odetoye is investigating non-conventional agricultural residues of an under-utilised Nigerian plant, Parinari polyandra Benth, as a potential source of biomass feedstocks, for biodiesel and bio-lubricant production.

LOreal_TemitopeOdetoye“My work is on the utilisation of African biomass for the production of bio-fuel. This particular biomass I am working on is Parinari polyandra which is less utilised. It is not commonly used. What it what used for before is medicine. This particular fruit is common in the Middle East and West Africa, especially the northern part of Nigeria. I am working on how to make use of the oil. The oil content is about 60% and that is very encouraging. I want to make use of that for the preparation of biofuel and biolubricant. If I do this, it could be part of the solution to the environmental challenge we have of global warming and greenhouse gasses submission. By producing biofuel from this biomass, I believe it will be a solution to this problem.

“A couple of years ago in Nigeria, there was alarming flooding. And I was looking at it and thinking – am I going to be a part of the solution. I thought that it was better to have products that are environmentally friendly, green products from renewable material. I worked on this Parinari oil, I used it to prepare a polymeric substance used in the paint industry… that is a green product that is environmentally friendly. So I thought, if I am able to prepare something that is environmentally friendly that would be a way of contributing to society but also reducing the environmental harm of using fossil fuel, I can work on biofuel. A couple of years ago in Nigeria there was a time when we had a scarcity of fuel which was a terrible experience. Not having fuel for your car, even if you have the money… so I was thinking that we should have the foresight to make use of other, non-edible materials for the preparation of biofuel.

“The grant is really commendable and it comes in at the very right time as part of what I am going to do is carry out research on how we will extract the oil from Parinari and its reactions and assess the quality of the biofuel produced from this oil using different metals. With the grant we can do this, and actually plan to have a small-scale pilot plant and production of this biofuel. At the end of the research I want to have something I give to women to use as a source of income, to produce biofuel from Parinari.

“As a member of the association of professional engineers in Nigeria, we go out to the schools to give career talks to the girls, encouraging them to take up courses and we give them prizes for mathematics, physics, and other science subjects. I think when they see role models they get encouraged and I have even seen one or two of them come into my school, my department. They are taking up science and engineering courses.”

Temitope Sogbanmu

LOreal_TemitopeSogbanmuTempitope Sogbanmu is investigating the reasons why fish stocks are declining in the Lagos Lagoon, in her doctoral study at the Metals Metabolism Group in England. Her research covers the assessment of developmental effects and the carcinogenic potential of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and extracts of sediments taken from the Lagos Lagoon, using embryos of the African catfish and zebrafish.

“I’m currently in my last year of my doctoral research in the Kings College in London. My research centres around assessing the developmental and genotoxic effects of environmentally relevant concentrations of Naphthalene, Phenanthrene, Pyrene, Benzo(a)pyrene, and sediment extracts from the Lagos Lagoon.

“The topics I’ve researched cover monitoring, toxicological assessments and the management of pollution by crude oil and petroleum products, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), emerging environmental pollutants, volatile organic compounds, and printing effluents and organic pesticides in various environmental matrices.

“The promotion of best practices in environmental science in Nigeria is close to my heart. This is why I choose to engage in environmentally relevant studies while collaborating with other research professionals on overcoming issues linked to pollution. Promoting a culture of reading among the youth, and girls in particular, is another passion of mine. Annually, I donate books to children and youth organisations because I believe that by developing a habit of reading and studying, excelling in academics and inevitably science will be easier and more achievable for the youth.”

Oluwatoyin Adeleke

LOreal_AdelekeOluwatoyin Adeleke‘s passion is in pharmaceutical research specifically in drug delivery systems designed by pharmaceutical industrial pharmacists. Her research is currently focused on developing a patient-friendly drug delivery system in South Africa for the management of tuberculosis, which was recently revealed by Stats SA as the number one cause of death in the country.

“TB is a major problem is South Africa. The medicine we have available is not patient-friendly because you find patients taking around 12 tablets a day and even when they have to take fewer tablets, they are usually really big pills and they have to take for six to 12 months. So compliance is an issue.

“My focus is on looking at how to deliver anti-TB drugs in a more patient-friendly way. I would also like to see a change in the type of medication patients take, so rather than them taking so many, they would take one small tablet that is just as effective to enhance compliance. Another thing I’m focused on is kids infected with TB. You often find that there are few medicines for kids with TB and most of them end up having to take adult medication but in smaller doses, which is not very convenient for them. So I’m looking at developing readily available medication for kids in Africa.

“My love for chemistry inspired me to pursue a career in this industry. I remember growing up my father told me if I love it, I should go and do professional chemistry and tackle a male-dominated industry because there are few women in it. I researched pharmacy and saw that it suited me because I love people and I see myself solving at least one human issue in Africa.

“I intend to use the money from the L’Oréal-UNESCO grant for my research; to buy chemicals and a powerful computer and software that can assist with the work I do and enhance the quality of my pharmaceutical formulation.”

Arwa Elaagip

ArwaAs a Medical entomologist and lecturer at the University of Khartoum in Sudan,Arwa Ellagip‘s work entails is examining midgut RNA molecules of the sand fly for the purpose of developing a transmission-blocking vaccine and a suitable insecticide solution to prevent the spread of black fever in Sudan.

“I have always had a love for science since I was a little girl who liked exploring and playing with insects outside.

“I’m currently researching midgut transcriptomes of the sand fly which is known as vectors of visceral Leishmaniasis (or black fever) in Sudan and eastern Africa. This species specificity is driven by several molecular factors that allow the parasite to infect, survive and multiply within the midgut of the sand fly, and permit transmission to a suitable vertebrate host during a blood meal.

“Through identification and characterisation techniques, I hope to discover the regulatory and biochemical pathways within these vectors as potential biopharmaceutical transmission blocking vaccine candidates, and targets for insecticide development.By sharing my expertise, I hope to produce scientific personnel who are capable of initiating and conducting research in infectious disease vectors, and are driven to participate in similar international research projects in medical entomology and vector control.

“Ultimately, I hope to contribute to the understanding of the molecular interactions between Leishmaniasis and the sand fly vector, to open up new avenues for basic research towards the control of this neglected vector-borne disease and enhance the development of new and improved vaccines, while aiding prevention strategies and control policies for Leishmaniasis.

“My previous studies have enriched my knowledge as a scientific research professional. I am driven to use my expertise and experience to help local communities and to enhance quality of life worldwide.

“With the grant, I will complete my PhD work including research, field work and sampling.”

Irene Nsiah-Akoko

LOreal_IreneDoctoral fellow at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission Irene Nsiah-Akokois concerned about the connection between high levels of radon and cancer, which affects many people around the world. At the moment, her research is focused on her native country, with hopes to expand outside the borders.

“In recent years, the radioactive contamination of soil, water and air reported in some areas of the country, has raised questions among scientists. This includes the contamination of groundwater by radon, which is extremely hazardous to human health, especially in reservoirs in granitic and gneissic terrain.

“I’m working on radon gas which is commonly found in water and soil and its connection with lung cancer because research in the US has shown that radon can cause lung cancer. I work to demarcate areas in Ghana that have high radon profiles so that I can get a reference level for the country and develop a radon map.

“The research I’m doing right now is focused on knowing the concentrates of radon in water, soil and indoors. After I’m done with that, I will then be able to do a risk calculation for the population where I did the study so that we will know whether the population is taking in high levels of radon or if the levels are just within the minimum level according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“The award will really help me in continuing my research because I’m currently in the sampling stages. The money will go towards my travels to the different villages where I’m conducting my research. It will also help me to collaborate with other scientists from different universities to analyse the samples I collect.

“I foresee a future for myself filled with new and exciting challenges, solving scientific issues and advocating science as an ideal field of study for women.