“A hair stylist with or without an advanced education, young or old, who produces exceptional hair designs has to learn how to estimate the amount of hair required for a specific pattern; determine the number of hair extensions to use and price accordingly in order to make a profit. What they are doing is more than just an art form, it is science,” says Dr Rosita Endah Yocgo. For most African girls and boys, this interaction with science begins at an early stage through various activities at home and within their communities.
Dr Rosita Yocgo, who is the network research manager at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Next Einstein Initiative, says that the typical African woman’s upbringing would include the passing down of basic scientific concepts from mother to daughter through an informal and inadvertent education process which if properly harnessed in classroom settings can culminate at a later phase to the birth of a mind-blowing female scientist.
She believes that African women possess a natural scientific “finesse” ingrained in them since childhood from their parents and surroundings; hence, many scientific talents on the African continent are still to be discovered. She believes that the continent is rapidly transforming into a “grooming” ground for undiscovered distinctive scientists with the mindsets required to drive technological breakthroughs of global importance on the continent.
“We have to find ways to bring these skills out of African women in a natural way, and then give them the space and time to learn and mature professionally, and the encouragement to overcome various hurdles,” Rosita enthused.
Given this passion to see Africans forge ahead in the scientific world, it is not surprising that Rosita, who is also a passionate researcher is involved with AIMS and the Next Einstein Initiative.
Hailing from Cameroon, Rosita enjoys the pan-African and international flavor of AIMS, a pan-African network of centres of excellence in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and Rwanda for postgraduate mathematical science training, research and public engagement; and plans to launch 15 centres in total across Africa by 2023 through its Next Einstein Initiative. Through its masters programme, it has been able to transform the lives of African mathematicians from over 40 countries on the continent.
Rosita adds that. “It is amazing to watch the transformation that happens from the time students arrive at an AIMS centre where their mindsets are challenged and sharpened, to the time they become alumni and actually start contributing to society.” AIMS alumni are now contributing in areas such as banking and finance, health, ICT security, improving safety in underground mines, ecosystem conservation, and use of renewable energy.
“Another person that we are sure to hear more about in the not too distant future is Rosita.” That is the assertion of Karl Kunert, professor of plant science in the plant science department at the University of Pretoria, who has known Rosita for over a decade. Rosita met Karl as an undergraduate student soon after arriving from Cameroon.
“She was a young woman trying to find her feet in a new country but she struck me then as someone who would make a mark in the world as a scientist,” Karl said. She had no training in modern biotechnology and had very little knowledge of the research area she was embarking on. She was convinced though that she would excel.”
Under the supervision of Karl, Rosita subsequently obtained her Honours and Masters. Finally, she obtained her PhD under the co-supervision of Karl and Dr Rachel Chikwamba from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). She later went to the University of Ghent (Belgium) as a postdoctoral fellow before returning to the University of Stellenbosch as a researcher, and eventually joined the AIMS Network in 2013.
Rosita is grateful for Karl. “He came into my life at a crucial juncture. He saw a light in me and believed in me and that was enough to encourage me on the road to success as a scientist.” Karl helped to secure financial support after her honours year. “Many foreigners have to quit their study programmes because of a lack of resources and that would have been me too, if it wasn’t for his assistance.”
Despite her achievements, it has not always been easy. While her parents were happy when they found out that she would be studying science, they wondered why she would chose plant science over medicine.
Science has traditionally been a male-dominated arena and Rosita sometimes found herself isolated, having to deal with the problems caused by stereotyping. Support from family, friends and role models has been crucial in overcoming such challenges.
“It is not impossible for a woman to be a successful scientist. Yes, a career in science poses its problems for women, especially considering the traditional expectations of the role of a woman in society, but it can be done and should be pursued if you have a passion for it,” she said.
“My husband has and continues to be a pillar in my career path” says Rosita who now has to find an equilibrium in the different roles she plays: her growing family which now comprises of two children and her spouse; her job; and her research ambitions. She desires to challenge traditional stereotypes regarding women in science, and to also challenge the barriers that hamper an increasing number of highly deserving women from becoming recognized science leaders.
Her advice to young women who want to pursue a career in science is to “embrace science and engage openly with others, seek mentors and mentor others.”
Rosita lives by this advice herself. As a young student she was inspired by the work Professor Jill Farrant, recipient of the 2012 L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, was engaged in.
“I did not know her personally but was very interested in the research she was doing on “resurrection plants,” [plants that during times of drought shrivel and dry up but when it rains again they become as green as an Irish hill]. I sent her an email and was very surprised when I got a response from her.” Many years later, when we finally met, I was humbled by her simplicity, and as a female scientist, meeting and discussing with her gave me additional encouragement to forge ahead.
That incident taught Rosita to be bold when it comes to following her dreams. One of her own dreams stems from childhood when she was amazed that certain crops could survive a dry spell while others would just fold and die. Other plants could survive pathogenic attack while others could not.
“My interest as a researcher is to impact the lives of farmers, agricultural practices and policies on the African continent in general. Specifically for farmers, I would like to support them in making sound farming decisions that will give them the best possible chance of not only putting food on their family’s table but also becoming well integrated in the national food production and supply chain of their countries. The starting point could be as simple a solution as planting a different type of crop in the soil type the farmer has.” However to get there, this has to be validated scientifically, and this is where mathematical modelling comes in. She is therefore collaborating with ecological, atmospheric and crop modelers to set up experimental systems that can provide answers to the problems which farmers have.