How this Serbian astrophysicist is supporting African efforts to promote STEM

Wmc Fbomb Mirja Povic 21819
Photo courtesy of Mirjana Pović

In October 2018, Serbian astrophysicist Dr. Mirjana Pović won Nature Research’s Inspiring Science Award for her work promoting paths for African girls and women to work in the space industry. Before doing this work, Dr. Pović taught science to orphans in Rwanda, helped organize a supportive network for Tanzanian women with HIV, and researched and taught at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain. Now, the doctor — who worked her way through a childhood of violence and poverty to obtain her Ph.D. — is a researcher and teacher at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute in Addis Ababa.  

Dr. Pović recently told the FBomb about how her experiences have helped her understand the struggles impoverished people face, and how individuals from marginalized communities can develop skills in fields like STEM.

The FBomb: How did your upbringing in war-torn Serbia affect your life — particularly your decision, and ability, to become a scientist?

Dr. Mirjana Pović: Life in Serbia during 10 years of the Balkan wars, and post-war recovery, was not easy. At the same time, it was a great life lesson in many aspects. It is when we are facing hard times that we learn the most about life, society, the people around us, and ourselves. We learn who we want to be and who we do not want to be. We learn in what kind of world and society we want to live, and what kind of conditions we should never accept if we want to preserve our humanity.

Studying and reading was my way to escape the craziness that surrounded us. Through books, it was possible to imagine a better world. I was one of the best students. I had access to free education, the support of my family, and met many people who, in one way or another, shaped my life. I managed — with a lot of struggle — to finish my undergraduate studies in astrophysics in Serbia and to get a Ph.D. scholarship in Spain.

You have been awarded for your work teaching science and promoting STEM among African women and children. What brought you to that work and what exactly has it involved?

The Nature Research Award for Inspiring Science recognizes both scientific achievements and contributions to society. In my case, the second part was predominantly related to my work in Africa over the past 15 years. I worked in South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, and now Ethiopia, helping with institutional development, scientific development and research, student supervision, lecturing, policy development, public awareness, and outreach.

Getting the Nature award made it possible to work more with the girls here in Ethiopia. [The award helped me] inspire and encourage them to do STEM by giving them a role model of women in science, and by sharing [my] knowledge, experiences, advice, and life stories. The award will also contribute to the development of the African Network of Women in Astronomy and Space Science, the aim of which is to guarantee the participation of women in the development of space science and technology on the continent.

I truly believe that a better world is possible only if we give equal opportunities to all children — to let them choose their life, independent of their sex and their place of birth. To achieve that, I believe the most fundamental tools are education and science.  

How have you navigated the white savior complex while working as a white person in African countries?

I have always believed that initiatives have to come from inside [a country] and not from abroad. Therefore, through my 15 years of work in Africa, I always tried to support the programs that my African colleagues were running. My current work in Ethiopia is a program fully under the Ethiopian government. In 2015, I got an invitation from the general director of the Entoto Observatory and Research Center, Dr. Solomon Tessema Belay, to help with the development of astronomy and space science. He invited me because at the time I was collaborating with our colleagues in Rwanda and Uganda by helping them with lecturing for their first master’s students in astrophysics. Dr. Tessema heard about that work, and I happily accepted his offer and moved to Ethiopia in 2016.

What obstacles to becoming scientists have you seen African women face? Do you think those obstacles are specific to African women or similar to those women in science face everywhere?

Women in Africa face similar problems as do women in other parts of the world. These include lack of support [for women in STEM], lack of role models, difficulties to progress professionally due to the lack of opportunities for them to do so, lack of recognition for the work they are doing, and difficulties in putting together their roles as scientists and mothers. [Women in STEM face] a lack of self-esteem, numerous social pressures, and possibilities of harassment and abuse. However, when working in more challenging conditions, which are the conditions of most sub-Saharan countries, then the aforementioned difficulties for girls and women become much stronger. In addition, poverty still affects millions of children’s access to education, most of whom are girls.

In Tanzania, you organized a supportive community for women with HIV. What challenges did you face working on HIV prevention in a country that has historically been prejudiced against it?

All of the HIV-positive ladies in Tanzania that I supported were mothers and widows. They already had the idea to help other women in a similar situation to theirs and create a safe space for their children if something happened to them, but were struggling to start that association. I met them and helped create that group almost 15 years ago, during one of my very first volunteer jobs in Africa. The situation has now improved significantly, but at that time the women I was working with didn't have any access to ARV drugs and faced a huge amount of discrimination. Saying openly that you were HIV positive often meant being fired and having difficulty finding another job — if not being totally pushed away from society. That reality had direct and serious consequences on prevention programs since people would not easily admit that they had HIV or even get the necessary tests [to determine their status]. In that sense, the ladies I was working with, who openly admitted that they were HIV positive, were real fighters with outstanding mental strength. Unfortunately, due to the very hard life that each of the ladies was living, the association didn't manage to survive long-term.     

You are a teacher and a researcher at the Ethiopian Space Science program. What can the African continent, as well as the world, expect to gain from the institution’s program?

The Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute is still very young — it was established only two years ago. It is the first research center of its kind in not only Ethiopia, but the whole East African region, and is the main coordinating body for development of space science and technology in the country. I was lucky to participate actively in its development from the very beginning.

Although a lot has been done, there is still so much to do since we are starting from scratch — like institutional development in the field, human capacity building, scientific development, policy and regulation development, and infrastructure. The program has plans to use satellite data for improving some of the main challenges in the country, such as access to water and electricity, food security, infrastructure development, prevention of natural hazards and disasters, and more. Therefore, we believe that in the future, through scientific and technological development, this program will be able to bring important changes for the benefit of Ethiopia, the greater region, and the African continent.  

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