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Dr Mary Murimi's story #WomeninScience

Dr. Mary Murimi is a professor of Nutrition in the college of Human Sciences at Texas Tech. in the USA. Her research interests include understanding the effects of the community environment on the nutrition status of the residents, and identifying coping strategies for food insecurity and factors that influence dietary behaviour, especially among low-income populations. Originally from Kenya, Mary is passionate about nutrition in Africa and about supporting and empowering women both in higher education and in their communities.

What are the experiences of women working in science?

Women in science often have a steep climb as they transition from a supporting role in their private lives to an expected leadership role in the world of science. In addition to external barriers, sometimes as women we bring our own limitations with the package. For example, especially in developing countries where I’m from, you are encouraged to play a supportive role to your family – you have to support your children and you are a good woman if you support your husband to succeed. While that is proper, the problem is when we take that role in our professional positions too; we feel like we are there to support others to succeed. If we are not careful that supporting role can override the role of leading and doing the investigations.

In addition, our supportive role demands that women wear different hats on any given day. Juggling those different roles takes time and may distract women from research leadership. For example, our supportive role to our children and family is needed daily and cannot wait; we therefore make other roles wait. Similarly, to be connected in the community, women are often also engaged in other civic or religious organizations. All these roles leave less time for our professional development.

Those two are the internal packages. The external package is when the world of men and outside individuals also looks at you as support and sympathizes with your many roles and doesn’t expect you to rise above them. They think: “oh you, you can’t work on Saturday. You need to be at home.” They don’t expect you to rise to the occasion. And sometimes the fact that the external world confirms how we feel means we get comfortable in those roles.

It is therefore critical that we empower women to balance their supportive and leading roles so that they have healthy homes and families and develop their careers as well.

Women in science need to separate their supportive roles for their families with their leading roles as scientists. Sometimes we as women shy away from competition. We feel like that is not being ladylike, that it is not being female to compete. I find with my students when a female has a paper rejected once they are more likely to be disheartened and be ready to let it go. When the men are rejected they more often respond, they revise it, they send it again until they get it published.

Why is it important for women and girls to pursue science?

I think it’s your best question. I think that science will give us the voice and levels the playground field.

Science doesn’t care about your surname, gender, or ethnicity; science cares about the content, what have you found, what you have written.

If more women embraced the fact that this is a level ground, more women would engage in research and publication. This calls for discipline in consistency and focus.

So the number one thing is to make sure that women can separate their home support roles and their professional lives and approach science focusing on being an expert, saying “unless I discover this nobody else will”.

How did you get involved in supporting women researchers?

I started by being an intern in Kenya where researchers from Germany were going from home to home in a very dry area in Kenya. We were supposed to shadow the parents, the mothers, especially the homes that had malnourished children. We observed the food they had, we would go to the market with them observing what they sold and what they bought. The family I shadowed had a few trees of mangoes, they had dark green vegetables, and they had chickens. Not a lot but on the market day, which I remember vividly – it was a Wednesday, they took a few bunches of dark green vegetables like spinach, 10 eggs and a few of the mangoes from the tree. Within a very short time their products were bought by people from the city. The family had a little child. Then on the way back they went to the stores and they bought white bread, sugar, and a kind of soft drink and took them home. And my heart was broken.

Right there and then I knew this was the community I wanted to work with. If somebody is taking the solution of their problem and giving it away and buying the problem I knew that knowledge was going to be power. That is why I committed myself to work at the community level targeting women and children. Here in America I have worked among Hispanics and among African Americans especially on chronic diseases, food choices and lifestyle changes. On the global level, I’m working with food insecurity. Because I know that in a lot of these areas I work with women, I like to empower women at the university to be interested in the same research because they are the ones who will be able to address these issues.

I am also Chancellor of Daystar University in Kenya and every time I look at the report there are more men with publications, there are more men doing research. And women are just as qualified. They have their PhDs but they are either not so confident or they are doing their research with their students but they are not publishing. We still don’t know the answers but I’m committed to help them.

In Nairobi you can see such differences but Kenya promotes women and women in Kenya are very, very progressive. When I went to Ethiopia as a speaker in a maternal and child nutrition conference that only had men in attendance, I was puzzled and realized that the message will not effectively reach the right people because women were missing from the table. I asked: “Do men teach women to breastfeed?” That’s why I started addressing the issue of women in Ethiopia.

I now have about 70 women in one university in Ethipia doing workshops and I’ve just got the good news that the president of the county wants me to continue with the work in the Somali region of Ethiopia. With this, I’m working on mentoring women [in higher education]. A lot of the faculty are concerned that first-year female students drop out by the second year. They indicated that some of the reasons they drop out are lack of confidence, financial problems, struggling with the work or not being treated well at the university.

The mentoring programme will take a bit of research. We want to know their perceptions of the problem and possible solutions. What package are the girls themselves bringing? What roles are their parents bringing? What role is the community bringing? If we understand the problem very well we will be able to address it.

What advice do you have for anyone trying to redress the gender imbalance in science/research?

The first thing is for the women themselves to realize that science gives them an equity-based platform and a chance to level the ground. In other words science does not discriminate on a gender basis. A good publication is a good publication and good research is good research.

However, as a result of the many hats that women wear, a mentoring programme that encourages women in science or any other field to focus, to separate roles, and to compete appropriately would promote women career development. Expertise in science calls for focusing. For example, when I started studying nutrition I saw that I could do benchwork, I could do different types of studies but I had to focus, to choose one area to look at, and do it well and deliver some solutions. Women need to get to the place where they start focusing and that is how they will advance in the science.

Sometimes collaboration is an art and a science at the same time. I tell my students whenever you are looking for collaboration it is good to have somebody you are mentoring and somebody who is mentoring you and somebody who is a bit different from you. When we put ourselves in that combination as women we will succeed. And don’t just look for another woman; look for the somebody who has that what you need to go to the next level.

If you could give a tip to a woman or girl starting out in research what would that be?

The women themselves need also to realize what they can do and what they need to do. We need to help women understand their motivation, understand their passion and understand their self-efficacy. Their barriers might be lack of a clear understanding of research methods, time management or funding. The more we can break those ceilings and understand, the better. An empowered woman is a woman who knows themselves, they have that self-actualization, they know their ability, they know where they want to go. That is the person who we can help really easily.

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