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Early-Career Women Scientists From Developing Countries Honored at AAAS Annual Meeting


From left, Rabia Salihu Sai'id, Mojisola Usikalu, Nashwa Eassa, Mojisola Oluwayemisi, Dang Thi Oanh | Atlantic Photography Boston

Five early-career women scientists — whose research fields include high-speed semiconductors; computational mathematics; weather and climate modeling; radiation physics and medicine, and atmospheric physics — have been honored with the 2015 Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.

The winners, who are from Sudan, Nigeria, and Vietnam, received their awards at a ceremony on 15 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting. The prize includes $5,000 and all-expenses-paid attendance at the Annual Meeting. The awardees will also be provided free attendance and accommodation at a meeting of the the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), based in Trieste, Italy.

During their acceptance speeches, the award winners described the perservance it took to pursue their research in fields traditionally dominated by men, with the limited resources often available to scientists in the developing world. And, they all expressed a heartfelt desire to mentor and support other young women scientists in their communities. Rabia Salihu Sai'id, now the deputy dean of student affairs at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, began her university studies with three young children at home, ten years after graduating from secondary school. "I tell this story to young girls in northern Nigeria who are married and want to go back to school. I tell them that they can do it," she said.

Dang Thi Oanh has faced the challenges of poverty and being an ethnic minority in Vietnam, becoming the head of the division of science at Thái Nguyên University of Information and Communications Technology, in Thái Nguyên, Vietnam. In addition to pursuing her scientific career, "I have the responsibility of being a wife to my husband, a mother to my children, and child to my parents," she said. Oanh said she was pleased to be recognized for scientific excellence and to able to be an example to other young scientists. "This award shows it is possible to escape from huger and poverty," she said.

"We at AAAS are proud to be able to host these awards honoring outstanding early-career women scientists, and to send a strong signal about the connection we feel to women in STEM around the world and the global nature of our science community," said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "The AAAS Annual Meeting also presents a wonderful opportunity for exchange and networking. In the past, scientists whom we have met through the awards have become new colleagues and collaborators.

This year, the annual competition focused on achievements in physics and mathematics. The winners were also celebrated for encouraging young women in their home countries to pursue careers in these fields. The prize is awarded by the Elsevier Foundation, the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (TWAS). The winning researchers, representing five regions of the developing world, are as follows.

Dr. Nashwa Eassa, assistant professor of physics, Al Neelain University, Khartoum, Sudan (Arab Region): For her research on a type of high-speed semiconductor, focusing on how to lessen the film that accumulates on its surface and interferes with the flow of electrical current. She is also involved in a project developing methods for using solar radiation to treat water and for splitting water molecules so that hydrogen can be collected. Dr. Eassa stressed the impact of the award, "The prize is very encouraging for Arab women and will show girls in my country that they can achieve their career goals, too."

Dr. Dang Thi Oanh, head of the Division of Science, Thai Nguyen University of Information and Communications Technology, Vietnam (East and South-East Asia & the Pacific Region): For developing algorithms that are used to solve problems that are normally too complicated for computers. Her work has helped to improve the accuracy of these methods, typically used for solving problems in fields such as artificial intelligence and computer graphics.  "It is important that the world sees how women are contributing to the 21st century Vietnamese economy through science research," said Dr. Oanh, "I am proud to be a part of this."

Dr. Mojisola Oluwyemisi Adeniyi, head of the Atmospheric Physics/ Meteorological Research Group, Department of Physics, University of Ibadan, Nigeria (Sub-Saharan Africa Region): For her research using modeling to understand weather and climate, as well as atmospheric radioactivity, lightning and food security. Her research has shed light on when to best plant staple crops in Nigeria. She has also presented on efforts to improve the accuracy of climate models.  Dr. Adeniyi remarked, "Nigeria is growing in importance in the developing world and our science research capabilities will be a big part of that. I am thrilled that my contributions to my discipline are being acknowledged."

Dr. Mojisola Usikalu, senior lecturer in physics, Covenant University, Nigeria (Sub-Saharan Africa Region): For her research on how radiation affects health, finding that exposure to microwave radiation, for example, could increase anxiety and reduce sperm counts in animals. She is also active in promoting physics in her home country, participating in programmes meant to guide young women into studying university-level physics.  Dr. Usikalu, an active member of the Nigerian Chapter of Women in Physics, said, "Such recognition at this moment in my career is very rewarding and I believe it will inspire my junior colleagues that hard work does get rewarded."

Dr. Rabia Salihu Sa'id, deputy dean of student affairs, Bayero University, Nigeria (Sub-Saharan Africa region): For her research that seeks to solve Nigerian environmental challenges, such as decreasing deforestation by turning carpenters waste into briquettes to replace firewood. She is currently working on a government project to gather atmospheric data, and is a mentor in local and national science projects that encourage youth participation.  Dr. Sa'id, a mother of six children, acknowledged the importance of winning such awards in encouraging girls to reach for the stars: "In some areas of our country, girls' education is struggling to be recognized. This award will demonstrate how women can contribute to our society for the greater good."

"OWSD is very proud to have been a key partner in these awards over the last five years. Each year, five very talented women scientists have been selected from countries with challenging conditions for science in general and for women in particular," said Professor Fang Xin, president of OWSD. "Furthermore, this year's awards are in maths and physics, two fields that typically have a low take up rate for women. The fact that the awards are presented during the AAAS annual meeting gives the awardees high visibility and they will make many important contacts here to further their research. I extend my full congratulations to this year's inspiring winners."

"TWAS is committed to reducing the gap between men and women in the science and engineering professions, so that we can better achieve sustainable development in all nations," said TWAS executive director Romain Murenzi. "The 2015 Elsevier award winners, through their excellent research and commitment to education, represent the important progress we are making. Clearly, these young women will be leaders in their fields of research and in their countries."

David Ruth, executive director of the Elsevier Foundation, said, "We are very honored to be able to recognize these remarkable women who are working to overcome obstacles and make valuable contributions in their respective fields.  These women are leaders and we are delighted to be able to celebrate them at this year's AAAS meeting."

[Adapted from an Elsevier Foundation/TWAS press release]