Fighting for women in science in Africa

DiscovHER interviewed Kwadwo Sarpong, one of the many men engaged with the cause of women in science. He is the cofounder and CEO of ‘African Research Academies for Women’, a non-profit organization seeking to bridge the science gender gap in Africa. Kwadwo hopes to become a physician-scientist specializing in neurosurgery, and he is deeply concerned with the lack of proper healthcare in his native country, Ghana.

Tell us your story! Who is Kwadwo Sarpong? What life events drove your commitment to the cause of women in science?

I am a recent graduate of Emory University where I majored in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. My interest in research and medicine stems from my battle with severe Typhoid fever as a kid, my brother Kwame’s paralytic polio condition, and Ghana’s limitations in terms of advanced medical knowledge and access to technologically developed treatment options. 
I was first introduced to research during my sophomore year, and I was fascinated to see how strong women’s engagement with science was. I discovered that through their exposure to science, all my female classmates had developed a genuine love for research, and yearned to make groundbreaking discoveries in their home countries. These experiences inspired me to provide a similar scientific exposure opportunity to my female friends in Africa, as often, this is reserved to their male peers.

Which are the main problems women in science face in Africa?

In Africa, we live in a male-dominated society where it is nearly impossible to convince the older generations of the importance of educating young girls. Women are encouraged to be “submissive wives and mothers” and told that the only place they belong to is in the kitchen. Growing up, girls tend to be discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM, making them question if they have the capacity to do so.
Another problem is the lack of role models, since the number of well-established female scientists is scarce. I believe that mentoring is the key to drive more African girls into science! 
Lastly, a big issue in Africa is the lack of support and funding from the government. 
We are still in the developing stages as a continent, but I am hopeful that in the future we will have a less gender-biased society especially in the STEM fields.

What differences do you see between women in science in Africa and the US?

There are some differences, but I believe women in science in Africa and in the US face similar challenges. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the average percentage of women scientists in Sub-Saharan Africa is of 29%. Even if in the United States these numbers have increased over the years, there’s still a lot of work to do in in order to close the gender gap, especially among minority groups. The main difference is that women scientists in Africa face greater challenges in relation to governmental support for research funding, as well as inadequate access to electricity, lab equipment, and supplies. 

What concrete actions are you taking to help bridge the science gender gap in Africa?

I cofounded a project called African Research Academies for Women (ARA-W) with Shadrack Frimpong and a group of undergraduate students. Our goal is to identify talented female undergraduate students and offer them exposure to scientific research. We do this giving aspiring Ghanian women scientists the chance to be participate in an 8-week summer program, where they conduct full-time research under the mentorship of established female scientists and graduate students. They also receive stipends, free housing, and all the lab supplies and administrative fees paid for by ARA-W. The aim is to encourage these women to apply to competitive graduate schools and fellowship programs. Our future goal is to support more students, to start helping high school students, and to establish an academy in Nigeria.

What feedback and help did you get since you founded “African Research Academies for Women” (ARA-W)?

We received positive feedback from the program’s Fellows and the research faculty in Ghana. Jessica Asante, who took part in the program, stated:

Thanks to ARA-W, I have learnt important skills such how to culture cells, and their application in cancer studies. Being part of this initiative has really aroused my interest in cancer research and reinforced my dream to own a lab. I hope to find an alternative to radiation one day!

However, some people doubted us, telling us that our project was a waste of time, and that “This will never work in Africa.” It is our goal and ultimate dream to beat our opponents and make the dreams of these young female aspiring scientists a reality!

Follow Kwadwo Sarpong on Twitter @I_amNanaKojo.

Visit the website of African Research Academies for Women , and follow their Twitter account, @AfricaAcademies.

For Women in Science

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