Meet Emmie Chiyindiko: The Multi-Passionate Award Winning Scientist fearlessly taking up space, dismantling biases and loudly walking that talk that ‘Girls in STEM can do it just as good as the boys can’

From an inquisitive Captain Planet enthusiast who was always curious about how things worked and why, ‘ScientistEmmie’, as she is affectionately known, now gets to satisfy her curiosity as a Forbes Featured Adult Planeteer fighting off real life eco-villains and poking and prying with a purpose. And as many as the hats are that this real life Planeteer now wears (trust us, they are) she wears them all loudly and proudly, determined to put in the necessary work to create a world we all want to live in, and equally determined to stay true to herself and to her womanhood, and to fly even higher whilst making sure she plays her part in fighting the system to ensure other women and young girls in STEM can fly just as high as she does…

Thank you for speaking to us Emmie. Please start us off with an introductory tour of your journey in STEM. What ignited the passion? What hats do you currently wear in this space?

I have always been inquisitive. I was the kid who drove their parents crazy with question after question. They were more than thrilled to ship me off to school because for a chunk of the day at least I would be my teacher’s problem. From as far back as I can remember, I have always been a seeker, wanting to know how everything works and why. Chemistry at its core is a study of everything. After all, atoms and chemical compounds make up everything (including us). Now I get to formalize my innate curiosity in postgraduate research. It is poking and prying with a purpose. I am currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Free State, Lecturer at the Central University of Technology, Free State; and an award-winning Science Communicator. When I am not hovering over experiments, I am a speaker and event facilitator in STEM community engagement programs for organizations like South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). I am also a higher education researcher with a special focus in gifted learners.

And what’s your PhD work focused on?

My research looks into how we can make our energy production industrial processes more efficient, ultimately reducing the carbon footprint. This branch of social and environmentally conscious chemistry is known as “green chemistry”. Green chemistry applies across the entire life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, use, and ultimate discarding. The objective of my research is to reduce pollution at its source by minimizing the time and material required to produce energy. I hope to achieve this by studying the synergy between experimental and computational chemistry of catalysts (materials that speed up chemical reactions). Understanding their structure and reactivity helps in the design of chemical processes to maximize the sustainability of industrial activity. Catalysts from earth-abundant metals for industrial applications are important to replace expensive and/or toxic catalytic compounds with eco-friendly and less toxic alternatives, contributing to a greener environment. The design and application of new catalysts and catalytic systems are simultaneously achieving the dual goals of environmental protection and economic benefit.

Why is this work so important, to you on a personal level, and to us on a global scale?

Chemistry has revolutionized many areas of our lives. From medicine, agriculture, to a number of everyday conveniences (like nail polish remover), but it also has to be acknowledged that we did it with many unintended consequences. Green chemistry is simply saying we can do better. We can design products so that they reduce or eliminate hazards to human health and the environment. This is imperative in dealing with the impending environmental apocalypse. We can no longer keep talking about avoiding the effects of climate change as if it is something far off in the future. Today, we can see the effects of climate change happening all around us now. Climate change is here.

Congratulations on being named the best science communicator in the FameLabSA Competition. Can you tell us a little about that and what winning this competition meant to you.

FameLab is an international competition designed to engage and entertain by challenging young scientists to communicate their science to a public audience in under 3 minutes. Talks are fun and engaging, making science relevant to everyone, without using jargon or formal presentations. Talks are judged on content, clarity and charisma. FameLabSA was the birth and solidification of a part of me that will stay with me forever. If I ever had residual doubt in my ability to capture and hold an audience, they all evaporated that day. I noticed that I hold my head a little higher after that accomplishment and others that came from it. I was named the national winner and best science communicator in the FameLab 2018 competition. I went on to represent South Africa in the international finals on an all-expenses paid trip to Cheltenham, UK. I have received many accolades in my field, including winning our institutional three-minute thesis competition (3MT) and best conference posters but FameLab is my favorite. I got to travel, meet national finalists from all over the world and build long-lasting professional relationships.

Your love of Captain Planet and the Planeteers- How did this influence you and your journey in STEM?

Imagine being a kid in Zimbabwe and no one being willing to explain to you what climate change is or what caused Cyclone Idai. The topics are so critical that everyone, from students to policy-makers, need quick and easy guides to the basics, especially children. According to a UNICEF guide for communicating with children, children can be powerful agents of change in their families and communities when provided with age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, inclusive and positive information. A show like Captain Planet helped me make sense of scientific concepts affecting our world. I believe kids see and understand what is happening more than we think they do and as a science communicator it is my role not to shelter them from reality, but to help give them perspective. We need to give a sense of safety through knowledge, not by pretending that things don’t exist, for kids and adults too! Now as an adult Planeteer I am armed with the knowledge to find more sustainable ways of living on the planet, I am able to make substantial contributions through science in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and solutions to offset climate-induced impacts. This work is critical, because today, it’s as if the show’s eco-villains have come to life. Combining the benefits of visualization with powerful metaphors and character-driven narratives; comics have the potential to make scientific subjects more accessible and engaging for a wider audience.

I’m sure this is in part the motivation behind the comic book you’re currently working on which we’re absolutely excited about. Why did you decide to bring this book and this superhero to life?

For the pure fun of it. I am a multi-passionate woman. I have many, sometimes seemingly unrelated interests. If it gets me fired up, I am doing it, but remember, not everything has to be monetized or become a movement. In the pursuit to make STEM and the world at large freer for women, we should make space to do things solely for the fun of it. Our lives should not always be a racial and sexism battlefield. I created the superhero, embodied the character and had it animated because I wanted to, it was so important to bring to life for my pure amusement and pleasure. Any deep and profound effect it has for the public will be an added bonus.

Speaking of women and STEM, what are some of the biggest challenges you face as a woman in this field?

Representation. Women are highly underrepresented in positions of authority, such as policy making and tenured faculty positions; and this is reflected in STEM cohorts and organisations as well as in political spaces. Racial and sexist macroaggressions are also rampant in the sciences, and these macroaggressions, whether intentional or unintentional, expose hidden biases and prejudices that generally make women (especially African women) feel undermined.

And why do you think we still have this low representation and low uptake by women in STEM?

Our living and learning environment shapes girls’ interest and motivation in STEM and how women are treated (at home, school and work) in a specific country has a direct correlation with how well girls perform in STEM. Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at mathematics. They do so, at least partially, because they THINK they are better. Social biases also affect women’s progress and career choices. Colleges, Universities, and Workplaces aren’t making enough necessary changes to accommodate female students and there is a lack of Role Models for young girls in STEM. Job satisfaction is a key to retention, but women are more likely to report that they are less satisfied with the academic workplace due to hostile work environments and a lack of support at home. Undoubtedly, many factors influence an individual’s career choice, but at a minimum, individuals must believe they have the ability to succeed in a given career to develop preferences for that career. The mere fact that careers in STEM are commonly considered to be masculine domains may increase men’s self-assessment of their abilities and interest and lower women’s self-assessment and interest in pursuing careers in these areas. Additionally, the research indicates that women believe that they must achieve at exceptionally high levels in math and science to be successful STEM professionals. If women hold themselves to a higher standard than men do, fewer women than men of equal ability will assess themselves as being good at math and science and aspire to science and engineering careers.

Is this what feeds into the idea of ‘Women in STEM’ still being such a seemingly unusual or uncommon concept for many people?

The answer lies in part in our perceptions and unconscious beliefs about gender in mathematics and science. Stereotypes, biases, and other cultural beliefs are changing; often the very act of identifying a stereotype or bias begins the process of dismantling it. Negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math lowers girls’ test performance and aspirations for science and engineering careers over time. We have not had a very healthy learning environment and social belief system and it has affected people’s view of women in STEM. It also affects girls in school today due to the issue of self-assessment; how we view our own abilities is another area where cultural factors have been found to limit girls’ interest in STEM. How women are treated in a specific country has a direct correlation with how well girls perform on math tests. We need to debunk the idea that men and women’s brains are different. The study of women’s hormones, mostly done on a very small sample size, has yielded evidence that has often been misinterpreted to denigrate women’s abilities for decades. The concept of premenstrual syndrome, for instance, first emerged in the 1930s. “And it became well established as a reason for women not being given positions of power.” Women were even initially barred from the US space programme due to concerns around having such “temperamental psycho-physiological humans” on board the craft.

How can we combat some of these challenges and perceptions?

We have seen many new emerging science and technology breakthroughs and with women making up less than 30% of world researchers, many products that are part of our daily lives have been developed without input from a large portion of the population- women. Adding diversity to STEM occupations results in increased creativity and innovation fuelled by different perspectives. More black women taking space in STEM is directly proportional to the social and economic development of nations. Women’s experiences—along with men’s experiences—should inform and guide the direction of STEM innovation. The lack of women in STEM fields is a complex, multifaceted issue that requires more than diversity hiring. There is need for persistent, long-term action in order to see results. Organisations need to create multi-year plans with publicly declared goals in order to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and hold themselves accountable to their stated objectives. They need to employ modern hiring processes that do not require women to discuss their personal lives, which can include plans to have children, which increase hiring biases. Such implicit biases are embedded in many job descriptions, interview questions, and interviewer attitudes.

What would you tell a young girl or a woman considering taking up a career in STEM?

Do it. Having role models is great but remember to bring your own flair. Trust yourself. Do not rob the universe of the unique contribution, experience and work that only you can bring. You will find yourself in rooms with smart, highly qualified and enigmatic people; remember, you deserve to be there. Breathe, relax, network. Instead of brooding over whether you can do something or not, try it and then you will get the answer you need. When faced with a tough life/career decision, do not run polls but instead search within you. Trust your intuition. You cannot ask people for directions to places they have never been – your vision and dreams. When you are presented with far less opportunities to succeed than your more advantaged peers, you feel as though you have to be perfect and cannot afford to make mistakes. Mistakes are not career or life defining, they are learning curves that you rise from with more self-awareness and confidence. Women are more likely to downplay their achievements so even when you feel like you’re doing a lot, do a little more.

I love your social media handle “@scientistemmie” and how loud and proud you are about being a scientist!! Is this an intentional decision to have your being a scientist as an integral part of your identity?

It’s such an Emmie thing to do. I continuously and perpetually put in work in self-development, I am proud of myself and I cannot imagine not talking about it, especially because I can back it up many times over. Women are likely to downplay their accomplishments and rate their performance less favorably than equally performing men. Stereotypically, men are likely to be more boastful about their accomplishments-imaginary or otherwise. On the other hand, women in powerful positions are “intimidating” and “irrational”, certainly not gaining the same admirations as their male counterparts. Women’s careers are often overshadowed by their looks, motherhood, partnerships or domestic abilities because every so often we are reminded of the ancient and outdated system of establishing a woman’s value. It is ridiculous that women should shatter glass ceilings while exerting so much energy in likeability; an idea of femininity rooted in misogyny, which does not benefit women at all. Historically, we have been conditioned to take up less space in the world, literally by weighing as little as you can, to figuratively by being as agreeable and modest as possible. People who get what they want, like promotions, raises, and funding, get it by proving that they deserve it. They do this by highlighting their accomplishments, and fact-based displays of the value they offer. If you do not self-advocate, you may not get the opportunities that you truly deserve, which are all of them.

I think for many people, when they imagine women in STEM, they imagine someone buried in books or shut away in a lab behind a microscope 24/7 with hardly any time or interest in the social aspects of life. Is this a true conception or another one of the misconceptions we need to break?

We have already seen the real damage that occurs when society harbors misconceptions over one demographic. We are slowly seeing the image of a scientist move from white, old and male to every race, gender and background and there is still so much work to be done. Not only are people more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, people often hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, like scientists or engineers. People judge women to be less competent than men in “male” jobs unless they are clearly successful in their work. When a woman is clearly competent in a “masculine” job, she is considered to be less likable. Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind. There is just no one-way to be a scientist, there are as many variations as they are scientists. A critical part of attracting more girls and women in computer science is providing multiple ways to “be in” science. It’s not enough for me to thrive in science, I want to do so while maintaining who I am. This is especially important in dismantling patriarchy in the workplace. We have seen men go through unimaginable scandals and still be trusted to do their jobs; an Instagram bikini post can’t possibly affect the quality of my work. Through some public displays of success and a strong academic profile, I have acquired a level of privilege that most women still don’t have. Freedom to be audacious, to be loud in success and failure, to be myself, is one of my contributions in fighting the system. Being yourself in a society that rewards squeezing yourself into a preset box does not come without a price. I’ve been overlooked for not acting serious enough, wearing makeup, displaying emotions…but my work and character will outlive any misconceptions one might have. Contrary to popular opinion, the science community at large does not suffer from a debilitating vitamin D deficiency. Far from restrictive, my science degree has had me jetting off to exotic locations to consult on science projects, conferences and science communication engagements. Not all scientists are science communicators but to ensure I am well rounded is key, so it is important for me to have other interests as well.Science is also not as solitary as people might believe. The best part of the job is meeting new people all the time, and learning about the science they’re doing. More often than not, progress hinges on collaborative teamwork, with everyone from geneticists to astrophysicists relying on combined input. A career in science guarantees that you will be continually working and communicating with others.

Why do you think it’s especially important to tell your story and the stories of other women like yourself making such commendable strides in STEM?

Negative stereotypes about girls’ and women’s abilities in mathematics and science persist despite our significant strides in participation and performance in STEM during the last few decades. Stereotypes that girls are not as good as boys in mathematics and scientific work is better suited to men are prevalent. Girls do every bit as well in their graded work as boys, but girls lose confidence as they advance through the grades and will start to do more poorly than boys on the timed tests, despite getting good grades. One reason for this loss of confidence is the stereotyping that kids are exposed to in school and the media and even in the home—that portrays boys as more innately gifted in STEM subjects especially maths. We can help eliminate the stereotype by exposing girls and boys to female role models in STEM careers, talking about the greater numbers of girls and women who are achieving at higher levels in STEM subjects and fields than ever before, and pointing out the lack of gender difference in performance in nearly every STEM subject. Role models and mentoring helps address the feelings of isolation and marginalization that girls’ and women in academic settings often report. With access to living examples, they can judge their performance better, and embrace their aspirations more. The more people hear and read information like this feature, the harder it becomes for them to believe that boys and men are better in these areas. Such claims have been irrevocably proved wrong.

What do you still want to get done? What dreams and goals do you have for yourself?

I am thankful for the dreams and goals that have already come true, even the ones I did not have the foresight to dream. You can only dream as far as you can see, as far as you think you are able to reach, that is why presentation of opportunities and exposure is important. I have always known myself to be hard working, creative, resourceful, intentional, daring…among other things, but it has been so satisfying to see myself live it out in different spaces. My dream is to continue to discover how far and how high I can reach. Specifically, one of my goals is to hold a position in local government specifically in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development and to be chief scientist at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Knowing that my future role is part of a larger initiative to maintain and improve public life is enough to keep me motivated…

 

By: Jo Kanengoni – Editor

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