Award confirms winner’s dedication to STEM research

Dr Mary Anti Chama, head of the chemistry department at the University of Ghana, has yet again attracted international attention.

Using nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry (NMRS), Chama has identified plants that have medicinal value, a study that could lead to research in drug discovery. It also added the 2021-22 Suffrage Science award to her list of accolades.

NMRS uses radio waves to excite nuclei within atoms, a process that determines the structure of a molecule, enabling the researcher to define its identity.

Chama obtained a BSc, MPhil, and PhD degree from the University of Ghana and is one of only three female lecturers in the department. She has benefited from a number of fellowships and awards, enabling her to visit the University of Cambridge and Aston University in the United Kingdom.

Chama was also one of the young researcher participants at the 59th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany in 2009. University World News spoke to her about the award, and issues such as harassment in higher education.

UWN: What does the Suffrage Science award promote?

MAC: It is an award that celebrates women in science for their outstanding scientific research, communication work and support for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Suffrage Science awards scheme was founded by the British Medical Research Council’s London Institute of Medical Sciences in 2011.

In 2021, the award coincided with the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Suffrage Science. The award is in the form of an heirloom piece of jewellery, which is handed from one woman scientist to another, creating a network of inspiring women. The nomination constitutes a vote of confidence in a colleague and of respect for the person’s achievements.

UWN: Who nominated you for this award and why?

MAC: I was nominated by Professor Melinda Duer of the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge due to my interest in multidisciplinary work in collaboration with women. I received the award in the engineering and physical sciences category founded in 2013.

UWN: What does the award mean to you?

MAC: The award means several things to me: being appreciated for whatever I have done for the world, giving me the confidence to do more, and do it better. It also means a lot that the Suffrage Science award ensures equity in diversity. Everyone deserves an opportunity to show their skills. It is like being strengthened to improve my performance, for much will be required from those to whom much has been given to. It has stimulated me to thrive in a diverse world.

UWN: Who is Mary Chama?

MAC: She is the first child of eight, and a Christian. She is also a senior lecturer and currently the head of the department of chemistry of the University of Ghana.

UWN: What was it like to be a woman in the sciences?

MAC: It means a scientist who, despite the obstacles of life – including those that come because of her gender – wants to play her part to make a difference in the world. In my class, the males vastly outnumbered the females, but this did not deter me. Like any purpose-driven person, I am doing my best with the help of my Maker to make a difference in the whole world.

UWN: What are some of the obstacles you had to face in your development as a scientist?

MAC: It is typical of humans to like and be attracted to those who share similar interests, experiences and appearances. Women are expected to be polite, accommodating and nurturing, whereas men are expected to be competitive, aggressive and fearless. Traditionally, women receive less support than men in the same job. Cultural mindsets and stereotyping as well as harassment are not uncommon. However, with determination and good personal leadership qualities, these impediments can be curbed.

UWN: How do you juggle your life between work and home?

MAC: The work you do must be something you are interested in and that you love to do. Then prioritise your life. You should also seek help when necessary. The sense of responsibility will also spur you on to achieve better results and balance in life.

UWN: Many young African women see academia as a difficult road. How would you encourage them?

MAC: If you have passion for it, follow it. Be determined to achieve with or without impediment without succumbing to any form of harassment. There is strength, belief and courage deep in a woman’s heart, and if they are pursued with all diligence, it leads to success.

UWN: How can women be encouraged to get into academia, especially the sciences?

MAC: Institutional flexibility on the quota for women. This should include that institutions recognise that women are biologically different from men and that they should be allowed to be different in some situations. Mentoring and grant fellowships can help as well.

UWN: Over the past few years, women in higher education across Africa have reported harassment. Did you experience this?

MAC: Harassment of female students in higher education cuts across all continents. I experienced some harassment a couple of times in my academic life.

UWN: Where do you think the blame lies for harassment in higher education?

MAC: I would rather look at the causes and see how they can be addressed rather than blaming. In my view, there is limited awareness about what constitutes harassment and what does not. Emotional instability in some students or staff and lack of active, institutional leadership in addressing such related issues, even with established policies, are factors – as is a culture of silence.

UWN: How do you think harassment in higher education could be curbed?

MAC: Harassment comes in various forms. The establishment of policies including penalties, engagement, and strict implementation of penalties will help to a great extent. The University of Ghana, for instance, has the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy (CEGENSA).

Among its many functions, CEGENSA also provides services and facilities to meet some of the unique needs of female staff and students. This is in line with their aim to create a working and learning environment and a culture supportive of social justice for both men and women. I believe similar opportunities occur in other institutions.

UWN: What are your views on mentoring women in academia?

MAC: I think organisations and institutions in Africa are involved in mentoring. I just mentioned CEGENSA at the University of Ghana and I believe there are similar services in other institutions and organisations. And yes, I do directly mentor female graduates and undergraduates.