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CELEBRATING INTERNATIONAL DAY OF WOMEN AND GIRLS IN SCIENCE

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This International Day of Women and Girls in Science is dedicated to equity, diversity and inclusion, and aims to recognise women and girls as not only beneficiaries, but also as agents of change in science.

In celebration, we recognise change agent Josephine Agyeman-Duah, PhD candidate in Women’s and Reproductive Health at University of Oxford, and Special Advisor to the Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation. And we thank her for sharing these experiences and insights on driving change in science …

Josephine, how do you see yourself as an ‘agent of change’ in Women’s and Reproductive Health?

Growing up, I was inspired and challenged by the saying of Dr James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey that goes: ‘If (you educate a man, you educate one person. But if) you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation.’ I didn’t just want to be schooled to have academic qualifications, I wanted to impact my society, my generation, in my own small way, whenever I got the opportunity.  

Even as a PhD student, you can already make a difference. One way I have done this is through innovation. For instance, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, essential but non-emergency healthcare services were halted. This has meant that vulnerable children (born preterm) could not access certain essential services. In my PhD research work at the University of Oxford which focuses on neurodevelopmental assessments for children born preterm, I have innovated a pathway to overcome access barriers to quality healthcare by converting in-person neurodevelopmental assessment (which includes tests for vision, cognition, language, behaviour and fine motor skills) to a virtual assessment that can be given at home and with the active involvement of parents/caregivers. This was recognised with the Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award and was shortlisted for a British Association of Perinatal Medicine award for Excellence in Research or Innovation.

Collaboration is another route to change. For example, I joined researchers from 43 other institutions in 18 countries on the INTERCOVID study that is aimed at assessing the effect of COVID-19 in pregnancy on maternal, foetal and neonatal outcomes worldwide. Our latest research investigates diabetes mellitus and high body mass index as risk factors for COVID-19 in pregnancy, and the association between gestational diabetes and a COVID-19 diagnosis. Our findings, supporting the recommendation that pregnant women be vaccinated, were published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynacology. Another contribution I have made towards mitigating the impact of COVID-19 was volunteering with a philanthropic organisation in Switzerland to draft the technical content of their pandemic preparedness and emergency support to select African countries. 

I have also leveraged my knowledge in Quality Improvement (QI) methodology to impact maternal and child health and health system strengthening. Before my research at Oxford, I worked with an international organisation in Switzerland and prior to that on many QI projects in Africa, such as healthcare quality management in Malawi and Project Fives Alive!  in Ghana. These projects were successful hospital and community-based interventions aimed at improving healthcare quality and reducing maternal and children under five mortality. The results of the Malawi work led to the restructuring of healthcare services in a tertiary hospital, the publication of which has been cited by several authors. Again, the evaluation of the QI work through Project Fives Alive! in Ghana and the impressive results we achieved have facilitated the adoption of our interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries in the sub region. Our QI project also inspired the Ministry of Health in Ghana to set up a Quality Management Unit to oversee healthcare QI initiatives in the country – we were part of the change.

Another aspect of my commitment to being an agent of change has been to dedicate part of my PhD time at Oxford to champion diversity and inclusion. To realise this strategy, I spearheaded the launch of the first Black Students’ Society at my College, Green Templeton and the first (racial) library collection (Maarifa Collection) to celebrate Black writers, culture and experiences as a way of addressing racism and educating and enriching others. Through the support of my College, I have also established the first Black Mentorship Programme which links students to established Black professionals to better prepare these students to thrive professionally and in their careers. I am grateful to Green Templeton College, University of Oxford for acknowledging my contributions with the Nautilus Academic Award in 2020.

As the Vice President of the Postgraduate Research Committee at the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health, Oxford, I organised a STEM Outreach Programme to encourage secondary school students in deprived postcodes to consider STEM and to challenge them to aim to be their best regardless of current circumstances.

How can science benefit from diversity and the different perspectives women bring?

Diversity in science is important because without it we become narrow minded. Some topics lend themselves to intrinsic experiences of women, such as breastfeeding and pregnancy. Others lend themselves to topics that affect us as women, like uterine and ovarian cancer. It is important that women in science advocate for these topics.

When we bring diversity to science and technology, we fulfil a moral obligation, it enriches the discussions we have, and our biological differences help us better understand topics which drive research needs.

What are some keys to creating equity in science for girls and women?

  • Role models. We need more women to take up leading roles in science, who would become inspiring role models to encourage more girls into STEM.
  • Mentorship. I have been blessed with great mentors that I really benefit from. If you have good mentors and the right guidance, you wouldn’t need to always reinvent the wheel; they will help you to shorten the learning curve.
  • Education. All girls worldwide should have access to basic education, but that is not enough. We need to support girls to go on to have secondary education and even up to the tertiary level. We also need to support women to combine family and caring responsibilities with their careers. Women don’t have to choose one over another (unless it is a personal choice) – women can have both and thrive, with the right support system.
  • Access to healthcare. We need access to quality healthcare, good nutrition, medicines and vaccines, and to ensure that individuals have these basics to reach their greatest potentials.

How should the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) inform our scientific activities?

The SDGs are important to guide us as a global community to protect human life and to achieve a more sustainable future for ourselves and generations to come. The SDGs, whether health or environment focused, are interlinked and are meant to ensure we’re comprehensive in our targets. The SDGs help guide us to identify key knowledge gaps and can provide input as to where we need to focus our research efforts.

For example, they will help us answer fundamental questions like where do we stand now with our (health) indicators, where do we want to arrive, which resources do we need to prioritise, who is being left behind? And it is important we know how to measure our progress as a scientific community because you cannot improve what you cannot measure.

What role can a single scientist play in answering these questions – and how do you remain optimistic?

Little drops of water make up the mighty ocean. It is a collective effort, but it takes individuals to do the work. Every day I ask myself: how do I give back to society? 

My optimism comes from the little changes and improvements I see with each tiny step I take. If you only look at the big challenges, it demoralises you. Successes, no matter how small, are what we need to focus on because they will have a ripple effect.