It is your life, Own it: A biotechnology narrative

Aneth David Africa Science Week NEFAneth David relates with science on a personal level. As a researcher in biotechnology, she testifies first-hand to the difference that biotechnology makes in Africa and elsewhere. She is not silent about it either! She has been a Next Einstein Forum Ambassador for Tanzania for the past two years. She is also undertaking doctoral research in Biotechnology that will directly impact the farmers in Tanzania. She can also be found talking about science and such things on Twitter and Facebook.

How did you get into biotechnology? Biotechnology was not my first choice. In high school, I did chemistry biology and nutrition, so I wanted to do something related to food science and human nutrition. But I borrowed a prospectus from a friend who was at the University of Dares Salaam, I saw the molecular biology and biotechnology program and I thought it had great courses compared to other disciplines. And I fell in love with it. I am still very excited about it.

What is so unique about biotechnology? There is a lot to be discovered since it is relatively new. Its applications can span a wide range of things. For example, I am doing agricultural biotechnology, but biotechnology can easily be applied to animals, health and the environment. There are a lot of solutions to be offered by biotechnology. In Africa, particularly, or small economies, it is very useful at any level, institutional, by governments and by individual people like entrepreneurs.

You spoke about Agricultural Biotechnology, what research are you working on currently? I am studying soil micro-organisms in a push-pull system. Push-pull technology is used by small-holder farmers of maize and sorghum to manage pests. Farmers with a plot of maize plant an intercrop with their maize. The intercrop is of the “Desmodium” species. Certain grass species are also planted around the same plot. The intercrop produces chemical signals that chase away the stem-borers from the maize and also kills “Striga”weed seeds before they attach to the roots of the maize. The grass produces signals that attract the stem-borers to the grass away from the main crop. Farmers around lake Victoria in Kenya and Tanzania are using this technology, it is significantly improving maize yield by fighting Striga and stem-borers. Along with this push-pull system, there are soil microorganisms which are beneficial, helping the plants to get nutrients and fight deficiency. I am studying how this push-pull system affects soil microorganisms, and how soil microorganisms help improve the effectiveness of the system.

You are also a lecturer. How did you get into that? That is a funny story. Growing up, my mum would tell me, “If you don’t pass high school, you will go for teaching.” So I didn’t like teaching at all. My academic advisor at the University kept track of my progress and suggested that I would become a lecturer or academician. I said no but he explained the difference between teaching and lecturing. At the time, I was focused on doing medical research. Afterwards, when I got the masters scholarship and got exposed to the academic environment, I found that it was more than teaching. I started changing my mind slowly. I found that it was a wide career but it was also very flexible. There were many opportunities for research, consultation and mentorship. I actually enjoy teaching/lecturing right now because I like sharing knowledge. I want to focus on bioinformatics, a new interesting field.

Along with sharing knowledge as an academician, you are the Next Einstein Forum(NEF) Ambassador for Tanzania. Tell us about the experience and what impact you feel you have had as an ambassador. Becoming the NEF ambassador is one of the best things to happen to me career wise and otherwise. In NEF, we define sciences as both natural and social sciences so that has allowed for a wider network of Africa’s young brilliant minds. One of the benefits I got was networking. I met a lot of young African talent in science. That type of network has opened doors and opportunities for collaboration. NEF has also allowed me to have an impact in my society through organizing science projects which we were passionate about. For example, there was the African Science week where in Tanzania we worked with primary school students to expose them to what is possible with a career in science, and how science can be fun and interesting. I have also, along with two other NEF ambassadors from Tanzania, Sudan and Senegal, organized a fundraiser and we were able to buy science books for primary school children. I saw NEF as a platform to share my passion and vision for science. Another impact is related to biotechnology. Biotechnology is not very well integrated into the health sector in Tanzania because the health sector is highly regulated and the technology is relatively new. You cannot work as doctor, nurse, or laboratory technician without proper board authorization, so although biotechnology is becoming instrumental in the health sector worldwide, biotechnologists in Tanzania do not get an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and expertise in the sector. As an ambassador, I met with the Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Health to discuss the contribution that biotechnology would make to the health sector. There is currently an ongoing process to formally recognize biotechnology in the health sector in the country.

How do you share science with the world currently, as you complete your term as ambassador? Being an ambassador exposed me to one of scientists’ weaknesses. We are very good with publications to communicate amongst ourselves, but I realized that the public does not understand what we do at all. There is this mystery around scientists. I myself struggle to write/communicate to a wide audience apart from scientists. I usually send my articles to a non-scientist to read before I get them out. If they understand it, then I can publish. I am interested in how, as scientists, we can communicate our work to policy makers. In Africa, for example, there is a gap between science and policy, science and innovation. It is not that we [African scientists] are not doing anything significant, it is that people don’t know what we are doing, whether it has potential or whether the results can be applied. I believe it is important for scientists to learn to communicate outside their comfort zone. Personally, I like to share my passion and show the world what scientists are doing for Africa. I have taken scientific communication courses for scientists to improve my communication skills. I write science articles in newspapers and science blogs but also non-science material. For example, last year, my students were asking how to write a CV, so I wrote two blogs about it. I am also embarrassingly active on social media. I share a lot in social media. A lot of young people, especially young girls, reach out, both high school and university students. Some ask questions related to science and others are just inspired by what I am doing. I have had scientists reach out for collaboration or consultation as well.

Have you had any role model or mentor? I have lots of role models and mentors. Throughout my life, my mentors have seen what was inside me before I ever saw it. I have had teachers from high school, lecturers at the university, and my supervisors. I also have people outside academia who I admire, I would want to be like them one day.

Aneth David in the LabDo you do any formal mentorship? In most cases, it is informal and depends on the people I mentor. There are people who come once and leave. There are others who stick around for some time. As I have mentioned, there are people who reach out on social media and through email, most of them high school and university students. I also mentor some of the students who I teach. Even those that I don’t teach but are from my Department approach me asking questions about how it is being a scientist, what the possibilities are, and the challenges are.We keep in touch and they call on me when they have any issues to discuss. It is, however, something that I’m passionate about and looking forward to do more of it as I get more experience.

We have just celebrated the International day of the girl and women in science, do you think we are doing enough for girls and women in science? I don’t think we are doing enough. As women, careers do tend to get to busy and we forget that we have this responsibility of also helping others. I think everyone can do something in different ways. You can do things individually for example you can write, you can mentor or you can share. Sharing what you do as a scientist on social media is still regarded weird, for example but that’s where most young people are. Young girls will only find out what you are doing as a scientist if you share. I also see the role of organizations that promote girls in science. If you cannot do it on your own, join one. Do you see someone who is active in in promoting girls/women and science related issues? Talk to that person, offer support, it can be in the form of ideas or even monetary. I think we also need to join more efforts as women and organizations. At times, organizations that are focused on women scientists issues may be conflicting somewhere. We need to work together.

You are also an entrepreneur. Are you still doing it? Yes, but it has been a bit difficult with studies. When I finished my first degree, I wanted to do something with natural yeast in wine fermentation and we started that with a group of friends. When I started doing a Masters degree, it became difficult so I had to let it go. After sometime, I got into the business of Beekeeping and bee products with colleagues from the University. That is doing well and but it becomes difficult when I am so far from home.

What is your favorite quote? It is your life, own it. I was thinking about empowerment of women and what it means. We talk about external terms, education, resources, access to opportunities but it struck me that empowerment has to start from within, with a desire to be responsible for your life, making decisions and facing consequences, so it is your life, own it!

What do you do to relax? I like reading about skills and tools on life. I am currently reading “Inspiration by Wayne Dyer”. I also like traveling and visiting different cities. I also enjoy watching movies.

Parting shot? When we talk about empowerment or encouraging girls to come into science, it does not mean that everyone has to take a career in science. I really wish for a world where women are free to do what they want without being told this is right or wrong, without being held back. The favorite thing for society to do is to define life for women, tell them what they can or cannot do. To young girls out there I would like to say that you can do anything you want. There are a lot of opportunities in the world. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. Choose anything you want, if it doesn’t work you can always start afresh. Explore, try things, try careers, you have that freedom. Don’t let anyone tell you or make you believe otherwise.

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