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We need to build more networks of women in science

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

Why science?

I was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania with family roots in Usangi, near Mount Kilimanjaro. I was lucky. My parents were community organizers in our village, educated in finance and economics during pre-independent Tanzania. They were not scientists, but they had a clear vision for all their six children—that we would all study science. So it was a bit of a nudge followed by encouragement. They were firm believers that we needed a strong grounding in science so we could analyze the world and do anything we wanted to. They believed science provided strong analytical foundation and flexibility to pursue either science or non-science careers later in life. I am grateful for my parents’ vision of science for their girls and boys.

We were an unusual family compared to the norm in East Africa at that time. Some of my brothers are now doctors, engineers, accountants, and I have a sister who audits information technology systems for a living. A lot of people commented that it wasn’t the “right profession for women” but I was drawn to science because I was curious. And no matter what else I do in life now, I find I have that tendency to prod people and ideas a bit more than is typical.

How hard was it to grow up in East Africa with an interest in science?

In the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was growing up, there were a lot of good missionary schools which had a strong grounding in science. But it was not common for a girl to take physics, chemistry and biology. I had a wonderful headmistress and mentor, Mama Kamm, who believed that girls should do science, and cooking, and needlework! I then obtained a degree in immunology and biochemistry. But it became clear to me how male-dominated this field really was when I went to science competitions or events, and found myself one of the very few women participating. It seemed daunting at the time, but it helped me build the resilience I would later need to work in other male-dominated environments. That, and growing up with four brothers and a family that allowed me to compete with them.

What obstacles did you face when you left Tanzania?

I went to Glasgow, Scotland to pursue a science degree and found that if there were few women studying science at university, even fewer were from Africa. So there, I became a young African woman scientist. It was isolating, and I really had no one to look up to as a role model. This was one of the hardest parts of pursuing science. When I moved to Canada to study microbiology and immunology, it was clear that I had to work much harder than my male colleagues because expectations were so much lower for me as an African woman. I also learned that I needed to develop my own support networks for my science ambition. Because I was abroad, I had to be open to networking with non-Tanzanians: my interest in science became the glue of some of the relationships I developed then.

What perceptions need to change so more girls and women choose science as a career?

Family perception is everything. I was lucky, but not many are. Second, is the perception of your peer group. A lot of who you become in life is influenced by the people around you in your formative years. Third, societal pressure is a big hindrance. How are you perceived by your neighbours, or your friends or teachers? I think that as a girl in science you have to find a way to persevere despite those three levels of pressure. It is important to find how to build networks of women like yourself, and call on them for support and reassurance. Many of my classmates in the girls boarding school where I grew up run important scientific institutions in Tanzania, and even now, no matter where I am in the world, I reach out to this group of friends for support. Our headmistress Mama Kamm transformed the science and girls agenda in Tanzania—we still look up to her for inspiration and admiration. We have our own cohort of women who studied science. But you also have to remember that your network has to include men, because as women, we can learn from them and also count on them as our champions to change some of the misconceptions about girls and science. For example, in my case, I observed early on that my male peers tended to question authority and decisions much more than I did. When I first left Tanzania to study science, it never occurred to me to ask why my paper hadn’t been published, but a man will never shy away from asking that question. I decided to learn from these colleagues and adjusted my professional behavior accordingly.

How can more girls and women choose science as a career?

You have to address self-doubt because expectations from women are often very different and lower than from our male peers. We need to have many more role models. When I was growing up, there were not many women I could look up to and think “I want to be like her.” But technology has made finding these role models so much easier today. We need to use our personal stories to inspire girls. Science provided me with the fundamental DNA to do anything in my life. So while I started my career as a researcher, I later branched out to public health and policy, and today, to environment. It was my scientific foundation that made this possible. This is what I really enjoy about my new role at UN Environment: we inform the global environmental agenda through work that is grounded in science. And so the curiosity continues.

What opportunities do environmental science offer?

Environmental science is a rapidly expanding field, and as our awareness of environmental issues grows, there are more career options within environmental science for girls and women. You can pursue a degree in public health and decide to focus on environmental pollution, for example. So there are many more opportunities and options. For women, life is never clear cut and dry, no matter how much we try—we are far more nuanced in our approach to just about anything, including science. This is why I feel environmental science can only become stronger if we have more women in research, because we often bring the human angle into the science. For us to make a difference in this field, we have to start with and think of people and humanity—the social aspects of environment are equally important. These are exciting opportunities for girls and women!

UN Environment

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Light at the end of the tunnel: New technologies to fight the COVID-19 on transport

Anna Bazarova

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Disinfection robots, thermometer robots, smart tunnels, automatic passenger counting, powerful ultraviolet lamps and other examples of how new technologies reshaped public transport amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to significant changes in many areas of life in just a few months. As the coronavirus continued to spread around the world, governments in several countries took measures to restrict movement, and people themselves tried to avoid traveling on public transport. The demand for the services of transport operators has dropped drastically. So, according to the Moovit Public Transit Index, passenger traffic in public transport on April 15, 2020 decreased in Israel by 92.1%, in Rome – by 89.2%, in Madrid – by 88.1%, in New York-by 74.8% and has not yet recovered. City residents are afraid to use public transport actively again, and their fears are fully justified. High daily passenger traffic and high frequency of contact between passengers make public transport an ideal environment for the spread of infections. The problem of fighting the spread of infections while maintaining normal life activity is particularly acute for large cities, such as Moscow or Beijing, where daily passenger traffic reaches 19.4 and 12.3 million passengers respectively. The average density of passengers on a bus or in a traincar at the same time ranges from 2 to 5 people per square meter, while, according to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, in order to comply with safety standards, passengers must maintain a social distance of 1.5 meters. Furthermore, virus particles can remain for a long time on public surfaces inside a bus or a traincar. Handrails on public transport are usually made of plastic, on which the coronavirus can remain up to 3 days, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. By touching them passengers increase the risk of contagion.

The key task for transport operators is to make the usage of public transport safe. To help them solve this problem came technology -all kinds of robots are widely used among innovations. With their help, it is possible to carry out disinfection effectively and safely without the involvement of staff. The Hong Kong Metro, also known as the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), together with the biotechnology company Avalon Biomedical Management Limited, has developed a disinfection robot that can disinfect even the most inaccessible places of traincars and stations. In addition to disinfection, robots can cope with more complex tasks. So, in Ningbo Lishe International Airport was tested a 5G-supporting robot-thermometer, which can measure temperature at a distance of 5 meters up to 10 people simultaneously and also identify those who are not wearing a face mask. Another innovation in many transport operators is the sanitary gate. According to Giulio Barbieri, one of the manufacturers, this is a “a tested, safe, and effective method to sanitize people and objects in just 5 seconds, killing up to 99% of any pathogenic microbes on the surfaces, including COVID-19”For example, the technology was tested in the Moscow and Dubai metros. In Moscow the clothes of the employees entering the depot were processed using a disinfection tunnel; at the same time, the territory was manually disinfected, so that the entire depot was safer for the staff.

The process of digitalization of ticket systems, which began long before the pandemic, also had a positive effect. Thanks to the competent actions of transport operators, the number of contactless payments in public transport around the world increased by 187% in the period from April to June, as evidenced by a report from Visa. Following WHO recommendations, many transport operators have made it mandatory to wear masks and maintain social distance on public transport. A number of digital technologies have been developed to comply with these rules. In the Beijing metro, compliance with a mask regime is controlled by cameras with a facial recognition system that can identify people. In addition, in the Panama Metro, observance of social distance is monitored by sensors which determine the degree of capacity of train cars. The technology called Mastria, which aggregates information from train weight sensors, ticket machines, signalling, management systems, CCTV and mobile networks for the Panama metro was developed by Alstom (a french manufacturer specializing in the production of infrastructure for rail transport) and installed almost a year ago. In just three months, thanks to artificial neural networks, it was possible to reduce average waiting times at stations by 12%. This development became particularly relevant during the pandemic. The Moscow metro is planning to introduce a similar technology. To maintain the social distance digital displays with colored indicators that reflect the level of capacity of subway cars will be installed. In the Moscow metro a new generation of traincars with an automatic air disinfection system built into climate control systems helped to reduce the risk of infection. It makes it possible to disinfect the air without disrupting the train schedule and attracting employees. The Moscow metro rolling stock consists of more than 50% of train cars with built-in UV lamps, and this percentage is constantly growing. After evaluating the effectiveness of using UV lamps to disinfect public transport, the transport operator MTA New York City Transit, together with Columbia University, launched a pilot project worth 1 million dollars on the use of disinfecting lamps. During the first phase of the project, 150 autonomous lamps were purchased and installed to decontaminate wagons, stations and buses in New York, during the second phase it is planned to install equipment in commuter rails. To carry out disinfection measures, the New York City Subway took unprecedented measures – the closure of the subway from 1 to 5 a.m. daily.

The use of robots, disinfection tunnels, digital technologies, ultraviolet lamps, and intensive work of staff – all this helped to reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus in public transport and made a significant contribution to fighting the global problem. According to the coronavirus distribution model, developed by Imperial College London at the beginning of the pandemic, if no action had been taken by mid-March there would have been over 500,000 deaths from COVID in the UK and over 2.2 million in the USA. At the moment, in the middle of October, there are about 43,000 deaths in the UK and about 214,000 in the USA. Of course, these are high rates, but they could have been much higher if the necessary measures were not taken in time. Technological innovations already available today will continue to be used, which will make the stay of passengers on public transport more comfortable and safer, reducing the risk of the spread of any infectious disease, especially during the flu and cold seasons.

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Modern-day threats to human rights in an era of global digitalization

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Digital security is an overarching issue related to the development of information technology. More and more new opportunities are popping up here each year, all of which have their upsides and downsides too. Adding to the technical and economic aspects of this issue are all sorts of equally important legal and humanitarian ones, primarily those dealing with technologies for collecting people’s personal data, with tracking systems and the risks inherent in the development of other aspects of information technology. This and many other topics took center stage during an online roundtable discussion organized by the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the TASS press center in Moscow. The Council’s head, Valery Fadeyev, mentioned a number of negative aspects of the active spread and development of digitalization, underscoring the following topics: bullying and defamation in social networks, manipulation of people’s opinions through advertising and politics, surveillance and the related problem of personal data protection, cyber fraud and censorship practiced in the digital space by commercial companies. Suffice it to mention Facebook’s recent decision to block the Instagram account of Ramzan Kadyrov in line with US sanctions imposed on the leader of the Chechen Republic.

To minimize these risks, Fadeyev proposed to set up a special commission with a primary focus of human rights.

Picking up where Fadeyev had left off, National Anti-Corruption Committee Chairman Kirill Kabanov mentioned the emergence of criminal groups specializing in online fraud, and new challenges associated with the active use of the Internet by young people.

“What we are discussing right now is how the Internet and artificial intelligence should develop in Russia. I don’t think that anyone believes that Russia will have its own version, like, for example, what they have in China or America. The Internet is developing in the world according to certain laws that need to be registered,” Kabanov noted.

When we talk about the Chinese model, we mean full government control of all Internet resources operating in the country by means of keyword filtering of web pages, and through blacklisting of website addresses (the so-called Great Firewall of China). As for the US model, many Internet resources there are highly dependent on the current political agenda – just recall President Trump’s order to ban the Chinese social network TikTok for allegedly stealing the Americans’ personal data.

Kabanov believes that such issues should be resolved by analyzing specific cases with specialists.

Igor Ashmanov, CEO of Ashmanov & Partners, a company specializing in Internet marketing, raised the issue of preserving the citizens’ digital identity by improving and expanding the legal framework of information security.

“We must have the right to protect a person’s digital identity, essentially the right to stop using digital technology as such. Without a smartphone, we literally become stripped of our rights,” Ashmanov said. He also brought up the extremely important ethical aspect of a mass-scale collection of personal data using cutting-edge digital technology done as part of an experiment in Perm schools where commercial companies installed cameras and tracking systems everywhere under the pretext of preventing the so-called “school shooting” – violent and terrorist acts by individual students or groups of students. Ashmanov argued that schoolchildren need personal space and that such measures “violate a whole list of human rights.”

Victor Naumov, Managing Partner of the St. Petersburg office of Dentos, also underscored the importance of safeguarding the people’s digital identity. In his report Naumov decried the lack of digital awareness among people. “Unfortunately, our society, not only in Russia, was not ready for the temptations that we faced. People do not realize that when they press the “I agree” button, they allow their fingerprints to be registered somewhere, which may have far-reaching negative consequences.”

Vladimir Ovchinsky, a retired general with the Interior Ministry, outlined the time that a request for large-scale measures in the field of information security may take to come along and highlighted the main areas of high technology application directly pertaining to human rights.

“What we are discussing now are the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution proclaimed at the Davos Forum in 2017. The information revolution has been happening for quite some time now, but since 2017, some things have been growing rapidly. Any technology has a triple purpose: the development of society, military purposes, and the criminal segment. In each of these areas we see human rights being infringed upon,” Ovchinsky said, noting the negative impact of the global pandemic on the development of digital crime in all three areas. Crimes associated with telecommunications technologies have particularly spiked with crooks disguised as bank employees extorting money from the people by phone. “The general trend is that the mafia is switching to new technologies and hitting the most vulnerable social groups,” Ovchinsky summed up.

Retired FSB General Alexander Mikhailov focused on criminal gangs of prisoners in Russia engaging in cyber fraud right from the places of their detention.

“Under the circumstances, the idea of ​​creating a digital code makes a lot of sense as it would not only regulate information flows but would also provide punishment for the illegal use of such information,” Mikhailov suggested.

The head of the Cyber ​​Moscow project, Grigory Pashchenkov, also spoke about protection of a person’s digital identity – “the rights of a digital person as a person,” which is an aspect still generally overlooked today.  Pashchenkov insists on the need to create a digital identity passport, arguing that it would better safeguard people against leaks of their personal data. However, such a measure is extremely hard to implement and, while helping prevent personal data leaks, it is still fraught with many complications, well exemplified by the need to enter passport data when restoring access to a profile on the VKontakte social network.

The participants in the roundtable meeting also discussed measures to increase the people’s digital literacy and set up a working group to protect human rights in the field of information technology. Thus, the question that we have yet to answer is the extent to which our life could be covered by information technologies. Here it is imperative to maintain the right balance and clearly understand the permissible limits to the invasion of science and technology into public space and the private life of an individual.

From our partner International Affairs

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Frank White says that there needs to be more international collaboration in the Space Sector

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Space-exploration is not merely a scientific expedition. It is of immense significance as it has the potential to remind humankind of what it has forgotten. The fact that Earth in the larger universe, is a very tiny planet. 

Our social divisions and hierarchies really do not hold much meaning when we consider the larger challenges that we collectively face as a species. The choices that we make today are going to impact the future generation, and our descendants would have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

Excessive focus on national priorities could provide short-term relief to our urges, but it is heavily detrimental to our interests in the longer run. Frank White, a space-psychologist who became very popular in public discourse due to the theory of the ‘Overview Effect’ which he devised, propounds on the basis of his personal experiences, that astronauts have a real potential to become agents of social change. 

According to Frank, Space-travel alters and uplifts human consciousness, and enables us to build a newly found appreciation of Earth as a system. The astronauts who look at Earth from space, often come back and say that being there really made them feel a sense of togetherness.  From outer space, the borders on Earth fade and make Earth look like a planet without distinctions. 

This very much reveals why astronauts and their experiences have been a major object of psychological interest for White in his research. 

The current pandemic has made it clearer than ever before that nations and people need to cooperate with each other to save the planet from larger existential threats. For the virus during this pandemic is coming at us irrespective of our nationalities.

Likewise, space-travel also reveals an opportunity to instil a humanitarian spirit and consciousness within us. But for that to become a reality, our space programs would also have to reflect this spirit of unity. Unfortunately, space-expeditions currently are often driven by specifically national aims and a fervour that is detrimental to the aspiration and hope of international cooperation.

The Space Force built by the U.S. for instance, has been largely justified as a response to the threats posed by other nations (The U.S. Space Force is the 6th independent U.S. military service branch, tasked with missions and operations in the rapidly evolving space domain). Frank White, on the contrary, aims to build a human space program that would reflect a global commitment towards the aim of exploring the universe. It would aim at enabling the brightest of astronauts from all across humanity to reach space, and not segregate them on the basis of nations. Building a new mental connection with the universe would be the prime motivator of such a project.

Space for Humanity as an organisation is working to sponsor citizen flights to space. The organisation founded by Dylan Taylor ensures that there is equal access and opportunity to go to space. Frank White is on the board of Space for Humanity too. 

White believes that the International Space Station (ISS) deserves the Nobel Peace Prize because it fosters the humanitarian feeling of connectedness. The ISS has truly contributed in strengthening the spirit of peace, environmental thoughtfulness, and a cooperative attitude towards situations of conflicts and crises. Frank is one of the people who had written a letter to promote the ISS getting the Nobel Peace Prize this year. He urges people to rethink the reasons why the Nobel Peace prize was founded. The astronauts who work at ISS hail from different countries that are oftentimes at conflict, but when they traverse space together and work to build a station, they put all of it behind. In space, people truly realise the value and necessity for international co-operation and this changes their outlook on life. 

The International Space Station (ISS) is a multi-nation construction project that is the largest single structure humans ever put into space. Its main construction was completed between 1998 and 2011, although the station continually evolves to include new missions and experiments. It has been continuously occupied since Nov. 2, 2000.

The opportunity of space-travel could bring us closer to each other and drop down the age-old tribal divisions artificed by social structures intended to separate us.  A deeper mental bond with the universe, would emanate out of the realization that Earth is, but a smaller part of a much larger system, and not a whole in itself.

The pandemic has given us a strong reason to stay united at a time of crisis, and White hopes that after discovering the vaccine for the virus, people would not forget what these times were like, and rather take inspiration from it and retain the spirit of international cooperation and empathy.

White’s primary contribution to space psychology remains the Overview Effect, where he highlights the “Earth-out-of-sight” experience.  The farther away from Earth one goes, deeper would be the shift and elevation in consciousness. For it would give one the ability to look at our planet as one single beautiful, blue entity; where borders would look artificially constructed and the barrenness of huge patches of land would alert us to the singular threat that should actually instigate a deeper alarm and united response from the international community; the threat of environmental deterioration, which directly thwarts Earth’s ability to sustain life.

For it is really difficult to build life-like conditions on any other surface in the universe.

It is only on Earth that human beings are able to enjoy protection from harmful radiations. If we were to inhabit Moon or Mars in the near future, the possibility of genetic mutations or the threat of diseases such as cancer proliferating is something we would seriously have to think about.

Moreover, Frank speculates that people might not be willing to go on a one-way mission to Mars. The threat of homesickness and depression could become too real.

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