Did you know that globally only 30% of science researchers are female?

And why collaborating with young female scientists in Africa is reaping great results.

Timed to coincide with UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 Feb, and to inspire more female students to study and work in science, the GCRF START grant has announced the results of its three year project launched in March 2019.  To date it has directly collaborated with nearly 50 young African research students and given access to almost 100 synchrotron beamline sessions.  Over half of START’s students are female scientists who are demonstrably changing perceptions and increasing the possibilities for women choosing long term STEM research careers.

“Globally UNESCO figures show that only 30% of researchers are female and they occupy only 20% of STEM leadership positions. These figures are even lower in many countries in Africa underlining how important it is to challenge women’s under-representation. Young female African scientists are vital both for their research and as role models and mentors for the next generation.  So we are really delighted to see many of the young women we collaborate with through the START grant, making great strides and achieving some incredible results in the fields of structural biology and energy materials

Prof. Chris Nicklin, Science Group Leader and Principal Investigator (PI) in the GCRF START (Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology) grant programme.
Michelle Nyoni, University of the Witwatersrand & Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT). Michelle Nyoni, part-time PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Chemistry lecturer at the Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT), Zimbabwe. Michelle collaborates with the GCRF START grant in the field of energy materials. ©Diamond Light Source

GCRF START  is an innovative collaboration between Diamond Light Source,  the UK’s national synchrotron,  and higher education and research partners in the UK and Africa. It is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council under the UK government Global Challenge Research Fund programme.  It is enabling and inspiring researchers from this, and the next generation of Africans to choose careers in science and find African and joint UK-African solutions to some of the world’s most pressing health and environmental challenges.  A key goal is to challenge the under-representation of women in science by providing access to world-class scientific facilities, funding, training, mentoring, and unique international collaborations.  Great results have been achieved in a relatively short space of time because START scientists get access to specialist technologies and facilities not available on the African continent – like beamtime on the Diamond synchrotron.

One indicator of the success of the programme is how the tiny community of structural biologists in Africa has grown across South Africa including a whole new generation of women. Similarly, in energy materials, the gender factor has traditionally been a barrier, so having young women entering materials science is great progress. Additionally, all these women participate in outreach and act as role models to inspire girls to choose STEM careers. Female START successes include:

Priscilla Masamba  has solved the partial structure of a protein from Schistosoma mansoni, a parasite responsible for the debilitating disease Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) which is endemic in more than 78 countries, with an estimated 4 million people infected in South Africa alone. Her work will contribute to drug discovery efforts and is notable because she was the first student from the University of Zululand, South Africa, to use the Diamond synchrotron, which she did remotely from a lab in South Africa learning many scientific techniques for the first time;                                 

Thandeka Moyo  is part of a leading South African team working on HIV/AIDS vaccine research and is currently researching Covid-19; Originally from Zimbabwe, Thandeka mentors early career female scientists and is a role model for school children;                                                                                             

Gugulethu Nkala is investigating new generation renewable energy storage systems in South Africa to help close the energy poverty gap; she is active in inspiring girls into STEM;

Lizelle Lubbe is a GCRF START grant-funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Structural Biology (a scarce skill in Africa). Lizelle is one of only a handful of scientists in Africa as a whole trained in single particle cryo-EM –  a cutting-edge technique for determining the structure of proteins;

Michelle Nyoni  is studying energy materials to improve the performance of Lithium-ion batteries for portable electronics and renewable energy sources to make them affordable and improve their environmental footprint to tackle climate change. Michelle is also a chemistry lecturer in Zimbabwe.

“The GCRF START grant has been a game-changer for young African scientists, particularly from under-represented groups such as female, and black scientists, enabling them to enter the fields of Structural Biology and Energy Materials and thrive.”

GCRF START Co-Investigator, Prof. Edward D. Sturrock from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
GCRF START grant-funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Lizelle Lubbe (L), with fellow scientists, Melissa Marx (R)& Andani Mulelu at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Photo Credit Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

One young scientist working with START, Gugulethu Nkala, is an Energy Materials PhD student from South Africa. The eldest of three daughters and first in her family to go to university, she remarks; “Seeing a black girl in science, makes girls see that there is someone, just like them, who has gone this far. We are breaking barriers that makes science seem unattainable, by being the link between science and society, made possible by funding bodies like the GCRF START grant.”

Access to inclusive quality education and lifelong learning opportunities is a distant dream for many young people across Africa, especially women. Few have the opportunity to finish school, let alone reach university to study world-class science, be mentored by experts or continue to postdoctoral studies. This can be due to lack of access to resources at home institutions, insufficient grant writing experience, lack of mentors or supervisors, inadequacy of facilities, and poor postdoctoral pay.

“It is important to support and mentor young women in science especially since women are largely under-represented, particularly in the case of the physical sciences, the field in which we work. I found that having access to synchrotrons and also building international collaborations through the GCRF START grant programme has not only allowed the young women that I work with to gain better skills but they also grow in confidence about their abilities” 

Professor Caren Billing, Energy Materials Research Group Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI), Lecturer and Associate Professor in the School of Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Gugulethu Nkala, energy materials PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, on a workshop tour of UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source (Diamond), in March 2020. Here Gugu is looking at the large red magnets that are part of the linear accelerator at Diamond on a visit to the Diamond synchrotron funded by the GCRF START grant.  The electron beams travel through the linear accelerator and are used to investigate the samples provided by the scientists for their experiments. Photo credit: Gugulethu Nkala. ©Diamond Light Source

The GCRF START grant supports young scientists working on key Climate, Energy, Health, and Education challenges in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goalsby building partnerships between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK and enabling them to work together on research using synchrotron science. The project focuses on developing and characterising new energy materials, for example in the development of solar cells or improving energy efficiency through novel catalysts, and structural biology to understand diseases and develop drug targets for better treatments and potential vaccines.  The START programme is grant-funded through the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source.

 “Science is a collaborative discipline. Yet science is being held back by a gender gap. Girls and boys perform equally well in science and mathematics – but only a fraction of female students in higher education choose to study sciences. To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to harness our full potential. That requires dismantling gender stereotypes. It means supporting the careers of women scientists and researchers.” United Nations, Secretary General, Antonio Guterras, United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science – 11 February

Dr Priscilla Masamba, Postdoctoral Researcher in structural biology at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa (previously PhD student at the University of Zululand). Here she is in the laboratory at the University of Cape Town where she conducts some of her experiments. Photo credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source
Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases ((NICD) and affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Photo credit: Thandeka Moyo. ©Diamond Light Source
GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Lizelle Lubbe (L) & MSc. Student Melissa Marx (R) from the University of Cape Town next to the Titan Krios III, at the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source where they conducted experiments in structural biology. Photo credit: Dr Jeremy Woodward. ©Diamond Light Source