Stephanie Okeyo is one of the best and admired young female scientists in Africa and internationally. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in microbiology and boasts well over 6 years of experience in youth civic engagement. She founded ‘Under the Microscope’, an organization that leverages science education, engagement and communication to accelerate progress towards building a more robust science and innovation infrastructure in Africa.
In addition, Miss Okeyo is a member of council of the Female Genital Mutilation to STEM initiative. Previously she was an Ambassador of Women in Science, East Africa and Representative to the United Nations office at Geneva and the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT). Her ultimate dream is to build an African scientific landscape that provides equal opportunities and benefits for humanity particularly young girls.
Losing her mother
Born in Kenya where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at Kenyatta University, Okeyo says it was the loss of her mother that motivated her to follow a career in science. And she felt science is the appropriate avenue though which she could contribute to building a community in which health was accessible to all.
Since then, Miss Okeyo she has attempted to fuse her work with science communication and engagement during her undergraduate studies. As she continued with her studies, she noted the glaring absence of Africans and specifically female scientists in the science sector.
Pioneering African female
“At school I frequently used YouTube to learn and I noted the people teaching and engaging in science who were African, female or young were very few. In addition, at that time I came to realise I couldn’t even name five pioneering African female scientists I looked up to. As a scientist I believe research is for public good and if we can’t effectively communicate to and with people we are tremendously failing as a scientific community,” Okeyo says.
She has always believed in science and says the current global health challenges, coronavirus being one of them, highlight the crucial role science can play in tackling these issues and promoting sustainable development. Miss Okeyo says “more than ever communities need to embrace sound evidence-based, data-driven solutions. We need to support and advance science that serves societal and planetary needs; science that is for and with society”.
But Miss Okeyo says the science community is facing challenges that it should confront head-on. According to her some of the important issues that need urgent attention are:
She says there are few female mentors for girls to spark interest and motivate them to pursue STEM careers. Also, she says, there are few mentors for professional women to encourage retainment in these spaces.
- Issue around motherhood
The so-called ‘Biological Clock Dilemma’, where women are compelled to choose between family or career development is rife. This is in addition to negative workspace environment that is also not inclusive or family friendly.
- Validation Syndrome
In some circumstances gender equality is perceived only as a woman empowerment agenda. “Women who get opportunities have to work harder to ‘validate’ why they deserve that spot,” she says. This creates a notion that they get the opportunities because they are female rather than on the basis of their skills.
- Diverse but not inclusive
The number of women in STEM spaces is increasing but if you examine this closely, very few are in decision-making positions. In most cases diversity does not go in tandem with inclusion.
Miss Okeyo’s career highlights and achievement include:
Starting ‘Under the Microscope’ with only her savings, passion and volunteers who trusted the vision, ranks as one of Miss Okeyo’s main achievements. Through the initiative, she received several recognitions including:
- Africa Science Week-Kenya under the theme ‘30 and Under Breaking Barriers Women in STEM’ in 2019
- Zuri Awards STEM Category Nominee in 2021
Okeyo’s message and tips to the future generation of women scientists in Africa is that they should have:
- Have a support system
- Surround yourself with people who will support and positively challenge you. People who contribute to your personal and career development. This support system does not necessarily have to be big but committed.
- Never be afraid of failing
- A ‘no’ is fuel to move forward and an opportunity for reflection and refinement
- Don’t be afraid of failing
- As far as I know most growth processes are not a comfortable ride
- It is okay to be the first
- At times we have no template or existing successful stories to refer to
- Be okay to try new things. Anyway, the ambitious and crazy ones are the ones who change the world!
- Have a lifelong learner’s attitude
- Be a sponge when it comes to learning; be open-minded and appreciate diversity. This is a growth attitude.
- ‘A wise man never knows all, only a fool knows everything’, African proverb
- Know your seasons
- Be aware of what season you are at in your career
- Most importantly, know what you need, who you need and how long this season should last and when it ends. It makes you focused and driven.