Women in Space Physics – Dr. Aol Sharon

Sharon is our first guest in the field of Space Physics. We are excited to learn about what women in Space Physics do, through her STEM journey;

Hi Sharon, it is wonderful to speak with you. Olivia has spoken amazingly about you and the journey you have walked. Thanks for joining us today
Hi Winnie, thanks for inviting me. I am happy to share my story with you.

Please introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Dr. Aol Sharon. Currently, I am a Lecturer at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), under the Faculty of Science, Department of Physics, as well as a researcher in the field of Space Physics. I am currently also a mother to my son, Aaron Lagen Katwesigye and I am traditionally engaged to Dr. Trust Otto from MUST. My Ph.D. degree is in Physics, particularly in the field of Space Physics, which I received at the age of 29 in the year 2021 from MUST.

I am also an active member of the Mbarara University of Science and Technology-Women In Science and Technology (MUST-WIST), the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), and the African Network of Women in Astronomy (AfNWA). These are forums for the advancement of Women Professionals in Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics. They all aim at empowering women and girl scientists by enhancing their leadership, academic and professional skills.

Walk us through your desire to have a career in Space Physics
I was born in Kakira, Jinja as the fifth born to Mr. Nono Richard Ojok and Mrs. Nono Christine Lalam. In total, we are 10 children at home (two boys and eight girls). My childhood was a very humble one and I can say we lived a “middle-class” lifestyle.

I went to Madhvani Primary School, which is located in Kakira, Jinja, for my primary level studies. For my secondary school, I joined Kakira Secondary school (KSS) also located in Kakira, Jinja, where I was for both ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. At my ‘A’ level, I got a bursary and my subject combination was Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics (PCB/M). My ultimate goal after high school was to enroll in a medical course at the University, particularly, medicine and surgery, but unfortunately, my points were just not enough.

Luckily, the points I earned me a government scholarship at MUST for a Bachelor of Science with Education-Physics/Mathematics. I was not very excited about this, but I did not have any other choice, because my parents could not afford to privately pay for a medical course. Naturally, I am never comfortable with failing, so, I went for the course, despite not liking it, and gave it my very best, without knowing what plans God had for me.

During the last semester of my course, I was the only female who majored in Physics. After graduation, I went out to search for teaching jobs, and, unfortunately, I could not get any. A few months into the job search, the Physics Head of Department at MUST notified me about a Master’s scholarship opportunity, offered by the International Science Program (ISP) under CEDAR. I was excited about the opportunity and I came back to pursue my Master’s in Physics for MUST. It was during my Master’s when I was appointed as a part-time lecturer at MUST.

Immediately after my Master’s, ISP offered me another scholarship to pursue my Ph.D. at MUST. I accepted the offer and I worked with amazing supervisors and mentors i.e. Dr. Stephan Buchert from the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF) and Assoc. Prof. Edward Jurua from MUST. I must say, of all the academic levels I have gone through, the Ph.D. journey was very lonely and with a lot of ups and downs. My tremendous growth during that period wasn’t only academic but I also learned a lot about life.

I acknowledge all kinds of support from my parents, sisters and brothers, friends, teachers, lecturers, supervisors, and above all, God. God has been so merciful to me since my childhood and I glorify his name for this. It has not been a smooth ride since the beginning, but I am grateful for how far God has brought me.

You have mentioned something about how hard your Ph.D. journey was; tell us more about the challenges you have faced
What I have found most challenging in this life is breaking the norm that women cannot do anything they put their minds to. I was hit very hard by this societal idea when I was in the final year of my bachelor’s as the only female in the Physics class. A lecturer asked a question and I could not answer it right away. He then went ahead and asked me, “What are you even doing here, in the Physics class?”. This mindset has always been a major setback for us women. I choose to always look at the positive sides of things to keep moving on because I know I am destined for greatness beyond all obstacles. I find motivation in several quotes and some are:

  • Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordan
  • Achieving success is a challenge but so is struggling so you may as well choose success.” – Rob Liano
  • Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.” – Roger Crawford

It’s sad that we still have to suffer such stereotypical comments as women but we hope for a better future.

What is your biggest source of inspiration, especially when faced with challenges?
My main inspiration comes from truth. Truth sets anyone free and so in anything I do I seek for truth and this has brought me this far. I have a very high level of curiosity and my urge to know more has always inspired me. In terms of people, I look up to my mother as a source of inspiration. She is one of the most hard-working women I know and she never gives up no matter the situation she is in.

Let’s talk about some of your prestigious achievements and awards
My very first award was the Bachelor of Science Fellowship awarded by the Uganda Government Scholarship to pursue my bachelor’s degree (Bsc. Education: Mathematics and Physics) at MUST. As mentioned earlier, I received a Ph.D. fellowship awarded by the International Science Programme (ISP) – Sweden. I also received the Master of Science Fellowship awarded by the International Science Programme (ISP) – Sweden.

I was awarded the IAU grant by the organizers of the IAU Symposium 335-“Space Weather of the Heliosphere: Processes and Forecasts”. Lastly, I was awarded a research grant by the Jicamarca Radio Observatory in Lima, Peru.

Congratulations to you, Sharon! Thanks for making us proud.

If it has nothing to do with Space Physics, how do you spend your time?
I enjoy traveling, reading books, shopping, and watching movies. Above all, I enjoy being a mother to my son, Aaron.

What is your favorite quote?
The best way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing” – Walt Disney

What’s your encouragement for a young African girl who wants to join Space Physics?
Believe in yourself. You can do anything you put your mind to. Working “hard” and “smart” go hand in hand.

Thank you very much, Sharon! It was an honor to host you today. Thank you for introducing us to the world of Space Physics.

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