— By Keri Troutman
In February Lab scientists Daniela Ushizima and Teresa Williams took their first trip to Africa as part of a delegation organized by TechWomen, a unique mentoring and exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education. The trip was eye opening and hugely inspirational for the women, both personally and professionally.
TechWomen brings emerging women leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East together with their professional counterparts in the U.S. Bay Area and Silicon Valley. During the five-week program, participants are paired with mentors and gain access and exposure to networks, resources, and industry contacts. TechWomen also organizes annual trips for women who’ve served as mentors to travel as a delegation to a participating program country. Ushizima and Williams were among 11 women selected to travel to Kenya with the TechWomen delegation.
In September 2016, approximately 90 women representing 19 countries participated in the program in the San Francisco Bay Area. Williams, principal scientific engineering associate at the Molecular Foundry, and Ushizima, staff scientist in the Computational Research Division (CRD) co-hosted two African scientists. Angeline Kasina of the Technical University of Kenya, and Ureshnie Govender with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, spent a month getting a firsthand look at the Lab’s research culture, collaborating with Ushizima and Williams on their own projects, and experiencing the larger community of UC Berkeley and the Bay Area. The project that Kasina developed with her fellow participants from Kenya, One Desk One Child, won $2,500 in seed money for implementation in Kenya.
Seeing the One Desk One Child project in action on their trip to Kenya was a highlight of the trip for both Ushizima and Williams. “The lack of desks is a big barrier to learning in a lot of rural Kenyan schools,” says Williams. “This project aims to bring the ratio (of students to desks) down from 10:1 to 3:1, and employs local carpenters, which is so important as well…. building the local Kenyan economy.”
Building local economies and strengthening Kenyans’ skills was a common thread throughout the trip as the delegation toured a range of schools, from inner-city slums to rural areas, elementary schools on up to university level. They participated in workshops with the kids and older students and spoke at discussion panels with fellow delegates.
“The questions from some of the young girls were amazing,” says Williams (below, center). “I remember at one panel we had a really interesting discussion about how men see women who are scientists or engineers, which made me realize that despite our differences we face a lot of the same issues; I’ve been working as a scientist for 17 years and I still get mistaken for the secretary.”
Ushizima observed that Kenya is still a very patriarchal country. “For example, only recently did women get the right to inherit property,” she adds. “For women in these kinds of countries, technology really is an empowering tool.”
In Nairobi, the delegation met with a Kenyan TechWoman alumni who had developed a water sanitation system for a large housing development. “She’d founded a startup to deploy systems to recycle water from several properties, which allowed communities to save a huge percentage of the water from showers and sinks and reuse it for gardening,” Ushizima says. “Before, it was just thrown out, and with water scarcity as it is in Kenya, this was a big resource to tap into.”
In one rural town four hours from Nairobi, Williams and Ushizima had the chance to see a solar-powered computer lab being installed; a TechWomen alumni from 2013 had envisioned it and worked with her employer, local communication company, SafariCom, to sponsor production of the freestanding “pod” that would serve a small community. At the school in the town Williams and Ushizima visited, there were 700 kids and only 19 teachers. “Some of the kids only had one shoe,” remembers Williams. “There were dirt floor classrooms, no glass on the windows, no electricity, and everything was covered in dust, so books just got ruined…. having a computer lab where they could go to read digital books, access services, do research, and having it completely sealed off and clean, that will be life-changing for some of those people.”
The computer lab is the 18th of 47 that SafariCom is planning to install across Kenya. A big part of the process is training. “You can’t just give someone a piece of hardware and then leave, that’s not effective,” says Williams. “So SafariCom works with locals and teachers for about a week after installing these labs to make sure they understand how to troubleshoot and use the systems in place.”
“There’s such a big difference in opportunity level there; they take nothing for granted and just value education so deeply,” observes Williams. “I think that they see technology as a way forward.”
“The kids we interacted with and did projects with were so smart,” adds Ushizima (below center). “They just had so few resources.”
Throughout the TechWomen programs both in the U.S. and in Kenya, Williams says the biggest benefit for her was the personal connections she made, and the wonderful feeling of being among so many other female scientists and engineers.
“At the end of the program in the U.S. last fall, we all went to D.C. for a week, and that was really where my experience with the program changed, because I finally got to meet the other mentors,” Williams says. “As a female physical scientist, there are never more than two or three women in the room when I go to a meeting, and there I was sitting at the State Department and it was so strange to look around and only see women.”
“This is me building my network,” she adds. “There’s so much more than just mentoring.”
Inspired by the TechWomen program, Williams recently applied for a mentoring program, NextScholars, run by the New York Academy of Sciences. She’ll be paired up with a female undergraduate student in her first or second year and will spend a few hours each month talking with her and serving as a resource and mentor. “This is a way I can make an impact here in the U.S.,” says Williams.
Ushizima also came away from the trip with a project she can continue in the U.S. She met a Rwandan woman on the Kenya trip who is working on technology for health care. Ushizima had been working on a UC Berkeley project, CerviCal, that uses image detection technology to screen cervical cells. “We got to talking in the bus while visiting schools in Kenya, and we discussed that in East Africa cervical cancer is the number one cancer that affects women, and it kills a lot of women every year, unlike in the U.S.,” says Ushizima. “I’m still in touch with her and we’re investigating together to see how this technology I’ve been working on could help in her country.”