Women and girls in science making a difference

International day of women and girls in science

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. On this day science and gender equality are brought to the fore. “We must raise awareness about the work of women scientists by providing equal opportunities for their participation and leadership in a broad spectrum of high-level scientific bodies and events”, says Irina Bokova, Director General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in her message to mark 2017 celebrations of women and girls in science.

At the International Potato Center (CIP), we honor all our women scientists for their contribution to achievement of CIP’s vision of roots and tubers improving the lives of the poor. In 2016 CIP had the honor of having two of its women scientists, Drs. Jan Low and Maria Andrade, recognized with the World Food Prize which they shared with two other scientists. During the announcement ceremony, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Barbara Wells congratulated the laureates saying “They made the case that orange-fleshed sweetpotato would be accepted in various African diets, they bred resilient nutritious sweetpotatoes that people liked, and now the evidence shows that these communities are healthier as a result.”

Dr. Jan Low, World Food Prize Laureate

Despite increasing appreciation of women’s contribution to science, the UN recognizes that women and girls continued to be excluded from participating fully in science. According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%.

Today we celebrate all women and girls in science, including Dr. Barbara Wells (an accomplished senior executive with extensive scientific and business experience) and hope that they are all inspired by the stories of Dr. Low and Dr. Andrade.

Dr. Jan Low

Dr. Low’s advocacy work under the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI) has changed the image of sweetpotato as a crop of poor women to a healthy food for all.   The ground-breaking two-year proof-of-concept study conducted by Dr. Low in Central Mozambique (2002-2004) showed that in households producing and eating bio-fortified varieties of OFSP, mean serum retinol (a proxy for vitamin A status) increased significantly and vitamin A deficiency declined by 15% in the children. Because of the quasi-experimental design having comparative control groups (no intervention), the study has become known in nutrition circles as one of the few food-based interventions with a solid evidence base along with a going-to-scale follow-up study (Reaching End Users) led by HarvestPlus in which Dr. Low also participated.

Dr. Maria Andrade, World Food Prize Laureate

Dr. Maria Andrade

Mozambique-based Maria Andrade began working on OFSP varietal selection when she released nine varieties selected from materials introduced from several countries in 1999.  Then in 2000, Mozambique experienced its worst flooding in 50 years, with more than 450,000 people displaced.  Andrade advocated for the widespread dissemination of the new OFSP varieties as a disaster relief and recovery crop. Two months after planting OFSP a farmer can harvest the leaves for food and in four months they are harvesting the roots. It is one of the crops with the highest rates of productivity per unit of area. Andrade and the OFSP team forged a strong partnership with the Government of Mozambique, who officially recognized the potential value of OFSP for food and nutrition security. Since orange-colored varieties were not known in Mozambique, an education program accompanied the dissemination. This was highly effective and by the end of 2001, 122,616 flood-affected households had received OFSP planting material and been exposed to key nutrition messages.  The concept of demand creation was born and a campaign branding orange as the color of healthy vitamin A rich foods was critical to the success of OFSP in Mozambique and in other countries in the region.