More African women are leading in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that integrates the four fields into a single cross-disciplinary programme and focuses on real-world application and knowledge sharing. In an interview with Africa Renewal, Gecci Karuri-Sebina of Kenya explains the importance of expanding how we think about STEM.
Who are you and what do you do?
After many years working in the public sector, I transitioned into working on more civic and design programmes, as well as more advisory roles.
I currently coordinate the Civic Tech Innovation Network, which is an African community of practice of various public interest innovators. I am also an Associate Professor at Wits University, South Africa, where I am helping to set up an African centre of excellence in digital governance, which will help build the capacity of governance actors as they deal with the challenges and opportunities presented by digitalisation in our society.
I also work on urban governance and futures issues through my other associations at the South African Cities Network, the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, and Singularity University, United States.
How did you get into STEM?
I was always interested in science. When I got to college to study architecture, I immediately gravitated towards physics and computer science. In my first degree, I detoured towards a computer science degree and got very involved in science research and coding competitions.
After my first internship as a software tester and working on implementing ISO [- International Organisation for Standardization] standards for software development, I discovered that while industry work was technically interesting and fun, it was not fulfilling. Something was missing, and that was the question of the social or community purpose of my work. That was when I began to combine social sciences with my science and technology training.
In my third year, I decided to add a second undergraduate degree in Sociology. In a way, this became a defining experience for me—one of not just conforming to what programmes or jobs are specified, but of constantly looking for what feels meaningful even if it means doing things that are “off the menu,” so to speak. I had the same experience at Masters (dual degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning) and Ph.D. levels (Planning and Innovation Systems Studies).
STEM is one critical leg for creatively developing the solutions and innovations that we need in Africa across a range of life-supporting fields—health, food production, basic infrastructure, environment, manufacturing and so forth. But I am most interested in the move towards STEAM (adding the arts and humanities) where we begin to expand our ways of knowing and learning.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I have been most proud of mentoring and supporting young people because I was also mentored and supported in my journey. I used to say that my success would be in one day reporting to my former mentees. It has happened three times now, and I hope for much more of it!
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Being a young, black African woman meant that I was a minority through much of my journey [in the United States]. But I was lucky to have strong roots and to have found allies along the way who helped me navigate these strange waters. But it has been a continuous journey of learning and evolving, I must say.
What opportunities do you see in STEM in Africa?
For me, STEM is one critical leg for creatively developing the solutions and innovations that we need in Africa across a range of life-supporting fields—health, food production, basic infrastructure, environment, manufacturing and so forth. But I am most interested in the move towards STEAM (adding the arts and humanities) where we begin to expand our ways of knowing and learning and to leverage convergences in interesting ways. From my own experience, I see how this shift can inspire novel creations as well as inspire many more people to see new values in STEM.
What is your message to young Africans about STEM?
Don’t see STEM as just a route to traditional professions – doctor, engineer, academic. There are many ways to leverage these technical knowledge fields, and new technologies are opening many opportunities for anyone to pick and play various roles.