Did you know that today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science? What are your thoughts about science? What are your thoughts about women and girls in science?
While there are lots of definitions of science, I like this one, by ChatGPT 3.5.
"Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. It involves the pursuit of understanding through observation, experimentation, and reasoning based on evidence. Science encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, psychology, and many others."
I do science as part of my work every day. It is a very special feeling to know that the science I do today will help future generations of women and girls, particularly in terms of mental health and well-being. But, I also mentor and teach young scientists, I am both a Professor and a Dean. As Dean of the large Wellstar College of Health and Human Services, with about 6,000 students and 130 faculty, at Kennesaw State University, I get to influence the types of science programs and courses that we offer and also shape the future of health science education. And, as a researcher, I have the privilege to do my own science. I develop new projects and determine how we ask and answer the research questions designed to address complicated health concerns, particularly in mental health. I also lead a team of researchers that translates science into practice, which may be the most gratifying aspects of all for me personally. Much of this work is conducted in Uganda.
First, let us talk about why we need to Celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
The Significance of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
The United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed on February 11th each year, stands as a testament to the global recognition of the critical role women and girls play in the field of science. This annual observance aims to promote gender equality in science and technology, highlighting the achievements of women scientists while advocating for greater participation of women and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. So, the importance of this day is really to address gender disparities in science and fostering a more inclusive and diverse scientific community. What can we do about that?
Addressing Gender Disparities in Science
Gender disparities persist in various domains, including education, employment, and representation, within the scientific community. Despite progress in recent decades, women and girls continue to face barriers that hinder their full participation and recognition in science-related disciplines. According to UNESCO, women comprise only 33% of researchers globally, and they are significantly underrepresented in fields such as engineering and computer science (UNESCO, 2021). In Uganda, the first woman graduated with a science degree from Makerere University in 1964.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science serves as a platform to raise awareness about these disparities and advocate for policies and initiatives that promote gender equity. By highlighting the achievements of women scientists and showcasing their contributions to scientific advancements, this day challenges stereotypes and biases that perpetuate gender inequality in STEM fields. Moreover, it encourages young girls to pursue careers in science by providing them with role models and mentors who can inspire and support their aspirations. It was not until 1989 the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) was established to promote girls' education in Uganda.
Promoting Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity is essential for innovation and progress in science as in all fields. Research has shown that diverse teams are more creative and productive, as they bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to problem-solving (Page, 2007). However, the underrepresentation of women and girls in science limits the diversity of ideas and talent within the scientific community, thereby impeding scientific discovery and development. According to recent statistics, only about 26% of those in STEM fields in Uganda are women. And, only 14% of STEM professors in Uganda are women.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science plays a crucial role in promoting diversity and inclusion in science by advocating for equal opportunities and representation for all individuals, regardless of gender. By celebrating the achievements of women scientists and recognizing their contributions to various scientific disciplines, this day highlights the importance of diversity in driving scientific innovation and addressing global challenges. It was not until 2007 that the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) appointed its first female Executive Director, Dr. Patricia Okello, a key milestone celebrating women leadership in science and technology.
Empowering Women and Girls in Science
Empowering women and girls in science is essential for achieving sustainable development and promoting social progress. When women and girls have equal access to education, resources, and opportunities in STEM fields, they can contribute their talents and expertise to addressing pressing societal issues, such as climate change, healthcare, and technology innovation.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science empowers women and girls by providing them with a platform to share their experiences, challenges, and achievements in science. Additionally, this day encourages policymakers, educators, and employers to take concrete actions to remove barriers and create a more inclusive environment for women and girls in science. In Uganda, the barriers for more representation of women in the STEM fields have been attributed to traditional gender roles, lack of female role models and unconscious bias.
In my own work, I conduct many different research projects. But, at the moment our federally funded study on mental health trajectories among young women in Uganda is by far the largest and also most complex. We call it the "TOPOWA" study, and TOPOWA means "don't give up" in Luganda, a local language in Uganda. It is a 5-year project funded by the U.S. government, the National Institute of Mental Health.
In the TOPOWA study, we conduct several different types of science. The project is designed to examine how the social determinants of health (e.g., employments, education and poverty) impact mental health, and how we can create interventions to buffer against those factors.
The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These determinants are interconnected and include factors such as socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, social support networks, access to healthcare, and cultural influences. They significantly impact individual and population health outcomes, influencing the risk of disease, disability, mental health and overall well-being.
Here's a brief overview of some of the key social determinants of health:
1. Socioeconomic Status (SES): Income, wealth, and occupation are critical determinants of health. Lower SES is associated with increased exposure to health risks, such as poor nutrition, inadequate housing, and limited access to healthcare, leading to disparities in health outcomes.
2. Education: Education level is strongly linked to health outcomes, with higher education associated with better health. Education provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and resources to make informed health decisions and access opportunities for better employment and socioeconomic status.
3. Neighborhood and Physical Environment: The quality of housing, access to green spaces, availability of healthy food options, exposure to pollution, and safety of neighborhoods all influence health. Living in disadvantaged or unsafe environments can increase the risk of chronic diseases and mental health issues.
4. Employment and Working Conditions: Employment status, job security, workplace safety, and access to benefits such as health insurance impact health outcomes. Unemployment, underemployment, and stressful working conditions can contribute to poor physical and mental health.
5. Social Support Networks: Social connections, family relationships, and community support play a crucial role in health and well-being. Strong social support networks provide emotional, practical, and financial assistance, buffering against stress and promoting resilience.
6. Access to Healthcare: Access to affordable and quality healthcare services, including preventive care, treatment, and medications, is essential for maintaining and improving health outcomes. Barriers to healthcare access, such as lack of insurance, transportation, or culturally competent care, contribute to disparities in health.
7. Cultural Influences: Cultural beliefs, norms, and practices shape health behaviors, attitudes toward illness, and healthcare-seeking behaviors. Cultural competence and sensitivity in healthcare delivery are critical for addressing diverse population needs and reducing disparities.
Understanding and addressing the social determinants of health require comprehensive, multi-sectoral approaches that go beyond medical interventions to tackle root causes and promote health equity for all individuals and communities. For context, mental health issues are understudied in Uganda and there is a tremendous shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists to fill the unmet mental health needs.
In our TOPOWA study, we have focused on those social determinants of mental health (SDoMH) most important for young women who live in poverty in Kampala, Uganda. We have also focused on testing an implementation we call Socioeconomic Strengthening Targeted Training (SeSST) which is a 3-month community-based vocational training that also has components of psychosocial support, sports and group activities. This intervention is implemented by our long-term community partner, the Uganda Youth Development Link.
Our project is a translational research project where we in essence "Translate science into practice." We are taking scientific knowledge, research findings, and theories and applying them to real-world situations in this community-based project. We also call this implementation science. It involves bridging the gap between scientific discovery and practical implementation. That said, our project will also generate new science across several scientific domains. Many of the project components we have put in place are really innovative and are the first of its kind on the African continent.
Our project involves many different types of science:
population health sciences (this is a public health project),
biomedical sciences (we are testing biomarkers of stress, alcohol and drug use),
psychological and social sciences (we are conducting surveys on health, well-being, violence, norms, and other psychosocial factors),
neuroscience (we are examining how stress and fear are learned),
computer science (we use wearable sensors to assess sleep and heart rate),
data science (we analyze large and complex datasets such as those from the wearable sensors)
Finally, we are also conducting implementation science to determine how best to deliver the intervention in the community to maximize the benefit and translate the findings.
But, to some, our project may not look like "science". And, some may also think that our team does not look like scientists because most members of our team are women. So, let us start changing this, today, on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Let's push these biases aside and recognize that science can and should also look like us. Until people recognize us as scientists, we need to keep celebrating this special day and to promote women and girls in science. Because, as the quote says, "the world needs science, and science needs women."
- Page, S. E. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton University Press.
- UNESCO. (2021). "UNESCO Science Report: The Race Against Time for Smarter Development." United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
- ChatGPT3.5. to create an outline and prepare some of the narrative presented in this blog.