Highlighting Dr. Demilade Fayemiwo, a recipient of the 2017 Sub-Saharan Africa L’Oreal-UNESCO Foundation Fellowship, a TEDx Speaker and a Project Kuongoza Mentor.
Meet Dr. Demilade Fayemiwo
Dr. Demilade Fayemiwo is an experienced researcher with cross-disciplinary experience in environmental engineering, project management, policy — related projects. She is a recipient of the 2017 sub-Saharan Africa L’Oreal-UNESCO foundation fellowship, winner of the University of Johannesburg’s 2018 three-minute thesis and a TEDx speaker. She currently works at a non profit leadership academy in Johannesburg where she leads the science research program and works with young people from all over Africa to develop their leadership skills and equip them to address pressing challenges on the African continent.
Why did you get into STEM?
I was a very curious child. Everything, from how the body works to how heat is transmitted fascinated me. My father noticed this very early and gave me the right books to guide me along. I had a series of books called the ‘Teach Yourself Series’ and from them, I taught myself calculus, electricity and a few other aspects of science that fascinated me.
What is the One thing you’d like to see change in STEM for girls in Africa?
I would like to change the representation of science in Africa for African girls. This means first changing how science is taught. There is a misconception on the continent that science is abstract and cannot be seen in the world around us. As a matter of fact, many people believe medicine and perhaps computer science are the only degrees worth studying simply because they cannot see the application and potential far-reaching impacts other aspects of science can have. In addition to this, there are gender-based barriers to access for young African girls in STEM. The field is male-dominated and due to a lack of representation, young women are unable to envisage themselves in STEM careers. I would like to work on a program to change how African educators teach science and to increase the representation of female scientists in the science education sector in Africa.
Do you have Role Models? If you do, tell us about them?
I have so many role models because it is difficult to choose one person. It is also difficult to find women in science, not because they don’t exist, but because they are often relegated to the background, no one hears of their work. That said, Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim is a female scientist I certainly look up to. I was lucky to meet her while on a trip with researchers from Harvard and MIT and was blown away by her and her husband’s achievements in HIV research. She is a world-renowned scientist with many accolades under her belt, yet very humble and unassuming in person.
Please tell us about the challenges you have faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
My journey in science thus far has been an enlightening one, and by enlightening, I do not mean it was always positive. I have certainly gained key transferable skills from STEM but they have come with many challenges ranging from condescension to harassment and even being told to choose between being successful or being married with children. Most of the time, I let the voices drown in the background and when necessary stood my ground and confronted the issues head-on. Some of these issues are highlighted in my TEDx talk titled ‘the issues women in science face’.
What is your advice to young girls or budding women in STEM?
I always say this to the students I currently work with: Science is not smarter than you and it is not out of your grasp. Believe in your ability, commit to learning and excellence and most importantly, ask the right questions. Many young women, due to the intimidating atmosphere that has been created around science in Africa are afraid to ask questions. I charge you to ask questions whenever you need to. If you are unable to get answers where you are, go elsewhere and ask more questions. Information is what rules the world, and the more questions you have, the more information you will have.
What comes to your mind when you hear “Women Breaking Ceilings”?
There are different thoughts that come to mind. On the one hand, it suggests to me that women are breaking barriers and forging their way through obstacles. On the other hand, it poignantly highlights the fact that women are still suppressed and must work twice as hard in order to not only excel in their chosen paths, but to also break the ceilings to get access to rooms they are more than qualified to be in.
August was Women’s Month in South Africa. Would you like to share anything to inspire young women and girls for WM 2020?
I would like to encourage every young girl and woman to go after their dreams with all the passion and commitment they can muster. Don’t give up when you face an obstacle, find a way around it. Don’t be afraid to start afresh and learn new things and don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm. Take care of yourself too. Go for that spa day, treat yourself to a nice dinner, wear the dress with the funky colour/pattern that you like. Live in joy. You deserve good things!