Struggling and Succeeding in Science

Women in Sci

Opportunities don’t knock, they present themselves when you beat down the door. This is the story of the beginning of my participation in STEM. When I was in grade 11, I saw a post from my hometown university, Hawassa University, which said that anyone with an average score of 80 and above who was interested in STEM could fill out the form to take the university’s entrance exam. So, I registered for the exam, which was about all the STEM fields. I scored the highest out of all the candidates and thus joined the big world of science.

In the beginning, I had a hard time being away from my family, friends and my community. My family thought that it would affect my academic performance. Some of my friends were making fun of me because they thought I was crazy about science. Others were thinking that I was mad because they had never seen a young student from a small village become a scientist. Even some people from my village were thinking that it was impossible for me to do science because I am female. As a girl, I struggled against thoughts that girls should step back because they face more challenges than boys, and this makes them lose hope. But I have a motto that helped me remain hopeful and fight – “Move forward because that is where you reach the end”. I have always dreamt about becoming a scientist like my hero, Professor Sosina Haile, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. She is my hero because she inspired me with her great work and made me fall for Science. Her photo, which I constantly look at, is an inspiration for me to progress in science.

I was very excited about the program; now I was on my way to becoming a scientist. But it was only the start; I was left with a long road. I went to a laboratory once a week to learn basic biology. I enjoyed looking at every single instrument in the lab, like an incubator, centrifuge, autoclave and even the microscope. I still can’t forget the day I saw an onion cell under the microscope – I was so amazed at its appearance!

During one of the major courses, we were asked to write a proposal on any topic of our interest as part of a competition. The idea for my proposal originated from my environment; it was to find an herb or a weed that could be used for medicinal purposes. However, finding such plants was difficult. I had heard that a plant called Lantana Camara was used as pesticide in the horn of Africa (Kenya). I thought it could have an antibiotic effect. I searched (using Google) existing literature, but there was no such thing mentioned. Then I told myself that maybe I could be the first to discover a very important aspect of this weed. Thus, I came up with the hypothesis that the weed called Lantana Camara has an antibiotic effect.

I started experiments based on this hypothesis with the guidance of my advisor, Teacher Mekuriya, who is a Biology teacher at Hawassa University. It was difficult at first, but with continuous practice, I became more experienced. I used three basic steps in this experiment. Every step that I list below is done at a controlled temperature and free from contamination. (1) I start the experiment by culturing bacteria from my own stool, wound and skin. You may think it is ridiculous to sample from stool but I left no stone unturned! After culturing the bacteria, (2) I identified them to E. coli, Streptococcus and Staphylococcus. These are disease-causing bacteria. Finally, (3) I apply the crude juice form of the weed to these cultured bacteria. After two days, I went to the laboratory to observe the result of my experiment.

The result was amazing – it worked and killed the bacteria! Fascinating, right? I was very happy; my advisor as well as all the group members of my school were very excited. I repeated these experiments four times within six months to be sure of the results. It was the first time that I felt that I too could become a future scientist, just like my hero. After I went through those steps, I wrote a paper about my findings and competed in the nationwide Science Fair of 2016/17 that takes place in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The exposure and the network I developed from the competition, in addition to the certificates and awards, were great.

I am sure that I will become a doctor as well as a scientist with this and other discoveries. Currently, I am going to perform the next step of this experiment, which is the chemical characterization of this weed. I am sure that we will eventually be able to use this as a drug, like penicillin.

Now people who called me mad are talking about my work, and some are even using the weed as an antiseptic to heal their wounds. I showed them that anything is possible. I would like to tell all the girls out there that you need to fight for yourself, your life, and anything that you believe is right in order to develop yourself.

By 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures Mentee,

Higewongel Belete Heyi

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