Last week, Zimbabwe joined the globe to commemorate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
The United Nations General Assembly declared February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
This was done to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
This year’s theme “Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19” could not have come at a better time as the world battles Covid-19, with women scientists taking the lead in research.
In Zimbabwe, women scientists in various research fields are doing phenomenal work behind the scenes.
One such woman is Dr Junior Mutsvangwa, a clinical microbiologist (PhD).
With over 15 years’ experience in laboratory diagnostics, biomedical research, surveys, capacity building and health systems strengthening, Dr Mutsvangwa, who is also a certified monitoring and evaluation (M&E) expert for TB and HIV activities is proof that the sky is not even the limit for women with ambition and goals.
A journey that has taken her two decades with relentless efforts against a myriad of challenges, Dr Mutsvangwa today lives to tell her story and motivate other young women and girls who have a dream of entering the field of science.
Her story starts back in the village, where she grew up.
Her intelligence and aspirations were noticed by school teachers, which enabled her to pursue high school and nursing school.
“But as I considered enrolling as to be trained as a nurse, which was one of the well-known sought-after professions for young naturally science gifted girls/women in possession of outstanding Cambridge secondary results, I stumbled on this least known STEM related field of Medical Laboratory Sciences,” she told The Herald in an interview.
Unfortunately, this was in 1981 at the inter phase of opening up of such professions to blacks.
If anything, there were very limited places for African girls as for Dr Mutsvangwa this was still experimental because elsewhere history had shown that black girls had a high rate of dropping out.
“Gladly, I pulled through the highly competitive selection process,” said Dr Mutsvangwa.
Through education and work experience, Dr Mutsvangwa has managed to engage in cutting-edge TB and HIV research in Zimbabwe, done her PhD and since 2020, has been spearheading a number of studies some of whose outputs have resulted in policy and guideline changes.
“I have also been instrumental in adoption of up-to-date technologies for following up the epidemiology of such infectious disease pandemics as the HIV and the SARS COV2,” she revealed.
Dr Mutsvangwa has been working at a not-for-profit private research organization, the Biomedical Research and Training Institute (BRTI), where she has served in various capacities, initially as Laboratory Manager, then Head of laboratories (HOL), currently Senior Research Scientist (SRS)/Principal Investigator (PI) cum Technical Lead.
“Additional skills and expertise have been accrued through participation in various national and international developmental courses and through previous employment with Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), University of Zimbabwe and National Public Health laboratory, Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC),” she revealed.
As a female scientist, Dr Mutsvangwa knows too well what science makes one feel.
“Science means freedom of thought and appetite for new knowledge,” she said.
Most importantly, science gives her the inspiration to never stop dreaming and the tools to explore towards contributing to the scientific knowledge for the well-being of the human race . . . all the curiosity, anxiety, struggles, challenges, barriers to break — excitement, inspiration, passion.
“The eventual amazing feeling of saving lives and whether I am doing the experiments, presenting my work, or discussing with other scientists, science gives me the power to forget all societal, gender or race differences, because it’s greater than that,” she explained.
For Dr Mutsvangwa, ingredients to career progression to the STEM science and research field, especially for African women, are multi-pronged.
These, she pointed out, include first individual will power and self-drive to embody the statement that “as girls/women we can”.
The second important factor is family support in a way that allows for self-actualization, she said.
“Third, societal support towards grooming the girls and young women from grass roots level, giving them the exposure that would broaden their mindset from not only focusing on children and family, but other opportunities as STEM related activities such as linking schools with science museums, science fairs and quizzes, information campaigns on science occupations and televised competition,” she said.
Furthermore, Dr Mutsvangwa pointed out, society should make deliberate effort to identify and expose the girls/women to role models in order for them to build confidence.
“Other initiatives should include mentorship for women — helping women in science school and school re-admission policy, advocating for Work-Life Balance in STEM faculties (like labour laws that accommodate maternity leave and other care giving responsibilities). In other words, flexibility in time to combine career with other responsibilities,” she said.
Dr Mutsvangwa said policy and programmatic measures should be institutionalised to safeguard gender equity in STEM both in the education system and workplaces.
Being in the STEM field, Dr Mutsvangwa has experienced bias in her career and has first hand experience on how such prejudices impact on numbers of women partaking STEM.
“Initially my recruitment into Biomedical Sciences was not smooth. Bias erodes the confidence and zeal and the affected individual(s) then resort to the usual non-challenging route,” she said.
Though her career path has been a long, winding and bumpy road, she is happy that she managed to live to one of her favourite mantras “where there is will there is a way”.
“Of note is that from the beginning of my scientific career, I have been working and studying, initially for the welfare of my siblings and subsequently as a mother and raising three children,” said Dr Mutsvangwa. “I actually had to delay doing my PhD to rightfully accommodate the three boys’ maternal love and financial support.”
That her eldest child Professor Engineer Tinashe Mutsvangwa had his PhD before her is testimony of how she put her children’s needs ahead of hers.
“Balancing being a wife, mother and career woman has not been easy, hence I only attained my PhD at the age of 56,” said Dr Mutsvangwa.
“What I am particularly pleased with is that despite the ups and downs I never lost focus of where I wanted to be professionally and also, I managed to efficiently manage my time between family and my profession.”
Dr Mutsvangwa has also travelled extensively within Zimbabwe as part of community research projects, and this has left her with a broad spectrum of the different cultural and social knowledge of Zimbabwe’s population.
“My work has also taken me within the region and internationally where in addition to exposure to what other women are capable of doing, I enjoyed being an ambassador of Zimbabwe as a woman in science through scientific conferences, symposia and attachments,” noted Dr Mutsvangwa.
As a female research scientist, the recent research MTN-044/IPM 053/CCN019 study findings that a vaginal ring containing the antiretroviral drug dapivirine and the contraceptive hormone levonorgestrel delivered sustained levels of each drug when used continuously for 90 days excited her.
“I find the innovation and the outcomes quite exciting,” said Dr Mutsvangwa. “Women, like men, should be protected against HIV and other sexually transmitting diseases. Through this initiative, women are provided the agency to protect themselves from STI’s and unwanted pregnancy which is important for their livelihood and career choices.”
Dr Mutsvangwa said the recent research MTN-044/IPM 053/CCN019 study findings besides empowering women triggers her to challenge fellow women current and upcoming researchers to research further and either optimize for efficiency, perhaps reducing the ring to a chip and perhaps increase the 90 days to more than that of the systems effectiveness.
On Monday, Zimbabwe took delivery of Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccines from China.
The 200 000 Covid-19 vaccine doses, which were donated by the People’s Republic of China arrived in the country aboard an Air Zimbabwe charter flight.
Covid-19 vaccines come at a time when a lot of misinformation is being spread on social media, church and other spaces.
Yet vaccines are critical in the Covid-19 fight.
Dr Mutsvangwa said it was important to have aggressive awareness campaigns on the positive benefits of vaccines in general and subsequently Covid-19 and this should be done across social and cultural divide using natural means of communication within the various community structures – for acceptability.
This, she said, will reduce speculation.
She suggested open sharing of statistical data from near and afar where the vaccine has been rolled out.
“There is also need to conscientise the population on how the vaccine works (in simplified non-technical, but effective language so as to prevent potential complacent by those who would have eventually got vaccinated and may pose as sources for future transmission,” she added
She said that it was important to avail reasonable resources and funds for operational research that would run concurrently with the roll-out of the vaccination to enable timely flagging of challenges and success of the vaccination programme.
Dr Mutsvangwa said to strengthen their capacity and improve research on novel viruses like Covid-19 and other diseases, African countries’ STEM system should encourage younger scientists to explore their novel ideas during the first up to second year of undergraduate.
This, she said, will allow young scientists to inject fresh home grown approaches/theories.
“The best ideas will then be scientifically and competitively selected through, for example, women entrepreneurship peer-learning hackathon and the successful ones supported to commercial level,” she said.
Science and gender equality remain important for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
According to UNESCO data (2014-2016), only around 30 percent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.
Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (three percent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (five percent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (eight percent).
Dr Mutsvangwa’s journey proves that more women can excel in any field if given the opportunity.