IITA seeks to build the next generation of female scientists and leaders
19 February 2021
IITA joined WIRES to showcase how CGIAR women scientists are transforming how we look at food, land, and water systems worldwide. Apart from celebrating its female scientists, IITA also sought to train and attract young girls into science through programs like IITA Youth Agripreneurs (IYA) and Start Them Early Program (STEP). IITA Women’s Group also partners in the Raising Girls Ambition (RAGA) program to sponsor young girls in science careers.
Director R4D, Central Africa and Natural Resource Management, Bernard Vanlauwe, gave the keynote address during the IITA power hour, moderated by Sylvia Oyinlola, Head Administration of Western Africa Hub. Vanlauwe focused on the importance of diversity and highlighted three points—first, diversity in research leads to diverse science solutions; hence, both men and women scientists are important and needed. Secondly, he stressed the need for every center to promote gender diversity starting within their organization. Finally, Vanlauwe stated that science careers could be very rewarding for women, looking at female scientists within and outside IITA.
Speaking on the contribution of women scientists to agriculture through IITA, Leena Tripathi, Plant Biotechnologist, looked at the potentials biotechnology has to transform agriculture. She emphasized that genome editing tools are becoming popular molecular tools of choice for crop improvement, and that her team in Kenya has trained quite a number of women and men researchers on the technology.
Mercy Diebiru-Ojo, Assistant Specialist in Cassava Seed Systems, shared IITA’s innovations to aid the rapid multiplication of clonal crops, including Semi-Autotrophic Hydroponics (SAH) for cassava and aeroponics for yam. “Food security is majorly dependent on seed systems, but there is the challenge of getting planting materials,” she said.
Delphine Amah, Regional Breeding Manager, spoke on how IITA has turned challenges in plantain breeding into opportunities. “Our contribution in resolving the challenges of pests and diseases in plantain production has improved food security in Africa,” she noted.
Busie Maziya-Dixon, Food and Nutrition Scientist, explained the importance of knowing the types and amounts of food consumed in different locations of Africa, stating that most diseases are related to diet. “Because we are what we eat, knowing what people eat, the quantity and nutritional quality of the food, will help us have the right interventions,” she said.
Emphasizing the significance of mentorship to building a career in science, Valentine Nakato, a Postdoctoral fellow in Plant Pathology, spoke on how to fit the puzzle pieces together in the world of plant science research. She mentioned the need to be mentored by senior scientists and mentoring upcoming scientists. “I have an ongoing research project where I am being mentored by senior scientists and I am also mentoring the young scientist within my team. So I am both a mentor and a mentee,” she said.
Juliet Akello, Plant Pathologist, recalled how the hunger she experienced in the 90s fueled her passion to find a solution to hunger and malnutrition in Africa. She highlighted how the experience also inspired her to mentor young girls to build a career in science. “I encourage senior scientists also to take up the challenge to nurture young scientists.”
Also, Sika Gbegbelegbe, Agricultural Economist (Foresight Modeler), looked at what the future holds and how science can help. According to her, “The food security in Africa can be improved by nurturing young people, including girls, to take up a science career.”
Wrapping up the presentations, Elizabeth Parkes, HarvestPlus Cassava Breeder, handled the question and answer session while Gundula Fischer, Social Scientist and Gender Expert, gave the closing remarks. Fischer mentioned that women scientists network to use the best talent and achieve development goals, but there is still a long way to go to include more women and girls in science, and building their interest and mentoring them to improve and sustain inclusion and diversity.