Mentoring the next generation of scientists in Africa

Role models and mentors can help one learn throughout one’s career. SHUTTERSTOCK

Mentoring the next generation of scientists in Africa should start from primary school, continue at university and extend into the workplace.

We must encourage the majority of female African students to choose a career in science so that they contribute to the economic and social development of the continent.

Considering that Africa is still a developing continent, there is ample opportunity for careers in science that can contribute to science advancement as well as the continent’s socio-economic development.

Mentoring and role modelling should not be seen as two independent roles even though there are different forms of mentorship. Certainly, the type of mentorship and support one needs differs depending on the stage of one’s career.

Encourage careers in science

At school, subject choices matter. It is important to ensure that young girls are informed and encouraged to take up science and mathematics, subjects which open the world to careers in science.

One must consider careers in space science, astronomy, health sciences as well as skills in dealing with big data. A number of organisations, including the South African Women in Science and Engineering, support and encourage the women to participate in science and engineering.

The Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World also promotes the participation of girls and women in science and technology in Africa.

As a parent I advise my teenage daughter and her friends to avoid choosing subjects, like maths literacy, just because they can get higher marks in them. We have arguments about what subjects help towards a successful future in science. One of the questions is usually around which career offers the best pay.

Teach them young - the message of science should be sustained from primary school to tertiary studies. SHUTTERSTOCK

From the first degree to postgraduate level, mentoring plays a significant role in ensuring that women graduates stay on a chosen career path.

For example, the Women in Science and Engineering mentorship programme - a global campaign - targets young women at undergraduate degree level and prepares them for careers in science. One of the programme’s aims is providing leadership and role models to young women who want to pursue a career in science and engineering.

There are a number of programmes which offer well structured mentorship programmes for postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and emerging researchers and a number of universities have different forms of mentorship programmes, which include skills training.

Building networks

Emerging researchers should join a research group that they feel they can contribute to and benefit from. Most research programmes involve working in multidisciplinary teams, which requires one to learn communication, networking and inter-cultural skills.

Networks can play a significant role. Through social platforms one can remain in contact with some of the top scientists and researchers across the world. Sometimes these networks can even become useful when applying for grants. Here again it is important to look out for academic exchange programmes or fellowships which can enable one to work with excellent teams at many institutions.

Remain networked for a fulfilling career. SHUTTERSTOCK

Creating enabling environments

Looking back, my supervisor and mentor as I recall, never had to complete mentorship tracking and performance forms as we have to now but he gave me various tasks and opportunities to develop as a scientist.

These included invitations to co-author articles, handling administrative duties as corresponding author, preparing conference presentations, applying for grants, organising workshops and conferences, and opportunities for national and international travel.

Of course, I did not know that all of this would count but it helped me gain confidence early in my career. I still draw on these experiences in dealing with my students, colleagues and those that I mentor. Institutions must provide networking opportunities for researchers.

As a research director at a South African university, I spend about 60% of my time mentoring. Creating enabling research environments both at organisational policy level and leadership level is critical in order to achieve one’s goals.

Typical policies that contribute to how supervisors or mentors behave towards those their mentor or supervise include how performance in research groups is measured.

The methods used by bureaucrats running institutions has been labelled “bean counting” which has reduced the autonomy of academics. Academic Amanda Goodall, for instance, argues that allowing universities to be run by “bean counters and bureaucrats” is detrimental to academics’ originality and productivity. Hence it is essential to ensure that organisational policies are enabling.

Issues around authorship in research groups can become quite sensitive if not negotiated well in advance. My advice to students, postdoctoral fellows and junior researchers is that they must agree in advance on what their contribution will be and the order of the authorship.

In big groups the project leader has to manage this as part of the mentorship process. This way group members will not see themselves as “pawns” being used to advance one’s career, devaluing each member’s contribution.

Balancing a career and family needs

When I was a full-time academic (before joining management) I loved the flexibility my role as a mathematician gave me. I worked long hours but made up for those long hours during university breaks. I planned conference trips around school holidays so that there was less stress on work colleagues and my family.

My family helped in taking care of my children when they were young. My husband has always been supportive. Of course, I have struggled emotionally and sometimes had to make difficult choices.

But I have been exposed to a vast network of colleagues globally who continue keeping my research candle burning. I still find great fulfilment contributing to knowledge in my subject area and supporting younger faculty members to achieve their goals.

The issue of balancing a career and family needs came under the microscope at an East African Research and Innovation Management Association 2015 conference in Uganda. Delegates agreed that organisations must have flexible gender sensitive policies, including promotion criteria that takes into account gender issues without compromising on quality.

This article is part of a series on Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Innovation in Africa by the South African National Chapter of the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World.