Scientist prioritises research that impacts communities

The number of women in sciences – especially STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses – is still low compared to that of men, not only in Rwanda, but globally.

Women still shy away from STEM-related courses, which is why more effort is needed to increase that number. However, Dr Lydie Mpinganzima, a scientist with a doctorate in mathematics from Linköping University in Sweden, says girls should not fear the sciences.

Mpinganzima received the Best Female Scientist Award at the first Rwanda Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) conference, with prize money of RF10 million (about US$10,000), sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation. The conference took place earlier in 2022 in Kigali.

Mpinganzima is a senior mathematics lecturer at the University of Rwanda and was rewarded for the high quality of her research presentation, ‘Compartmental Mathematical Modelling of Dynamic Transmissions of COVID-19 in Rwanda’. She spoke to University World News about her journey and contribution to the development of sciences, as well as solutions to draw more women to STEM.

UWN: What is your research about?

LM: Together with my research team, I developed a mathematical modelling framework for predicting and monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda. The findings suggest that developed models have the potential to help understand disease transmission dynamics, as well as give insight into the effectiveness of control strategies, by providing forecasts of the disease burden on the country and hence provide insights into policy decision-making.

The plan now is to connect the models to existing databases through a well-designed app to automate data processing and produce a dashboard to allow quick actions from healthcare authorities. The model has the potential to be adapted for other epidemics and infectious diseases.

UWN: The Science and Technology conference discussed the role of leveraging sciences and technology to deal with future pandemics and epidemics. What are the lessons learned from COVID-19?

LM: The COVID-19 pandemic taught us the role of scientific and technological research in mitigating its impact. It also showed that universities should offer sustainable solutions to mitigate the impact of pandemics and epidemics through research and innovation.

UWN: What is the status of fundamental and applied research at the university level?

LM: Fundamental and applied research are both carried out by researchers at various universities, depending on the research fields and-or interests of the concerned researchers. They both play an important role in research advancement. Fundamental research leads to more knowledge in the field, while applied research provides a solution to a particular problem.

UWN: With so few women interested in pursuing a career in science, what motivated you to follow that path?

LM: As a child, I wanted to become a nurse to help sick people or a cardiothoracic surgeon to offer support to a few physicians in that area. This inner belief of being a surgeon plus the support of parents and teachers nourished my self-motivation in science-related subjects as I couldn’t figure out how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon without biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics.

UWN: How did you experience the journey?

LM: The road was not always straight. It was characterised by abrupt changes. Once at university, I changed my mind about what I wanted to be. I finally wanted to become a university lecturer and transmit mathematics and problem-solving skills to the next generation. I have been offering mathematics for years and I hope I contributed to the development of more scientists in the country.

UWN: What do you think can be done to increase the number of women studying science?

LM: There is a need for increased mentorship and outreach targeting women students. Such mentorship and outreach should be organised at different levels. Some school visits and career guidance workshops can also help to motivate female students to enter STEM.

UWN: What has been the role of women scientists in encouraging girls and young women to enrol in STEM?

LM: Women scientists have adopted a habit of organising visits to secondary schools to meet girls in upper secondary (from Senior 4 to Senior 6). The goal of those visits is to motivate students to consider enrolling in STEM at university. I hope this can help them understand that STEM courses are not that hard and that they develop an interest.

UWN: Where do you think more effort is needed to promote science and innovation in higher learning institutions?

LM: There is a need for greater collaboration between universities, the private sector and industries to conduct joint research that has an impact on the communities. Higher learning institutions need to market themselves and look for opportunities in industry to showcase how research findings can improve their productivity through innovation.

UWN: What are your research priorities in the near future?

LM: I am involved with various research projects, but priority is always given to research that has an impact on the community. I also believe in joint research as it brings together different minds and results in enriched findings.

UWN: How is the funding affecting research in Rwanda and what do you think can be done?

LM: Research funding has always been limited. To secure funding, researchers need to convince funding companies about the relevance of their research. This is reflected in the research proposal. Researchers need more training on writing research proposals and on how to tailor them to the requirements of the funder.