You’re Smart Enough For STEM – Eva Liliane Ujeneza

 

Eva and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family. Here is our interview about her scientific journey:

Tell us your name please
My name is Eva Liliane Ujeneza

What do you do currently?
I am currently a lecturer of Mathematics at the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA). I was interested in this job because Rwanda is one of those countries where agriculture is the main source of income for more than half of the population. I was very happy to take up the challenge to train the next leaders in agriculture. My students have to combine agriculture and mathematics for optimum solutions in the sector, for example, measuring the amount of fertilizer needed, determining the optimal number of seeds needed in a given field size, etc. It’s important for students to study agriculture but better if modern means of agriculture are incorporated. Mathematics helps in maximising the yield we can get, with optimum usage of land and modern techniques in conservation agriculture. RICA’s program is amazing because we focus on what exactly our students will need to be self-sufficient on the field, at the end of their degree [1]

I am also the vice-president of Rwanda Association for Women in Science and Engineering (RAWISE), an initiative that empowers young Rwandan girls in science and engineering.

Tell us about your life journey; how you got to where you are
I come from a family full of academics. This was an advantage for me because I enjoyed school from a young age. Hardship hit soon though as I lost my father and became a refugee, before the new millennium. As a result, I had an unstable childhood and became completely uncertain about my future. Amidst all this, my love for mathematics never died. My brain could process numbers faster than words.

At the beginning of my A’Level, I was admitted into the biology and chemistry class as a major. I did that for 2 weeks and started having doubts about what I would gain out of it. I had discussions with students in higher classes and realised that it was going to be a hard choice, given my earlier training. I talked to my head-teacher and requested to be transferred into another class with more mathematics. This was a weird request because no female would willingly leave bio-chem and opt for more mathematics! I was given all pros and cons for my decision but what stood out was that once I left the class, my spot would be given to someone else and there would be no return for me. I am glad I made that decision because I have never looked back since then.

My next biggest decision was during my undergraduate, where I had chosen civil engineering because it was the “in-thing”. Again, after around 2 weeks of class, I realised that was not my passion. Yes I could definitely ace the degree, good grades and all that, but it wasn’t what I wanted! I didn’t want to stand on a construction site and tell people what to do for the rest of my life, lol. I went back to mathematics, this time, applied mathematics. I was again warned about losing my spot if I didn’t make a sound decision. I still made the bold move and have never regretted it. Looking back, I realise I was born strong and determined! Being that young but able to make such decisions without influence from anyone or anything – say money, family – makes me realise how strong I am at decision making.

Life was still not smooth, I had to face the challenge of adapting to new paths without any role models. Given the education system in Africa, I didn’t get a chance to find supportive lecturers while studying. I faced a challenge of insufficient funds and had no hope of any job potential. My hard work saw me through and I was able to graduate as one of the only two girls in a class of 40 boys.

At that point in my life when everything seemed dark, I was introduced to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). I was able to receive a full scholarship to pursue a masters in mathematical sciences in Cape Town, South Africa. The environment here was completely different; the lecturers were approachable, I was able to practice independent learning and network. The most amazing thing was having 30% of my colleagues as females. The teaching style was different, I was able to learn soft skills, I gained access to many e-libraries, full time access to the internet and computers….. Life was good! I was able to graduate with a postgraduate diploma in mathematical sciences. Later on I moved to University of Cape Town where I completed a masters by research in Climate Modelling. I have since proudly been a part of AIMS and have participated in gender-training sessions, one-on-one discussions, AIMSWIS, women-only discussions and group mentoring programs.

After my masters, I joined Stellenbosch University for a PhD in infectious disease modelling, in collaboration with SACEMA. I also got to do a Post-Doc about effects of a changing climate on diseases burden and progression. Before my current job, I got a chance to give back to AIMS Rwanda as a tutor, and as a visiting researcher on Applying Machine Learning on an Ebola problem.

What has been your biggest challenge in life so far?
My biggest challenge has been getting to university and realising that mathematics was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Before, it was easy for me to succeed without studying very hard. And now, here I was, having to face topics I found very hard! I had to put in extra time; an hour or two everyday after school, to help me understand better what was taught that day. My hard work paid off because I finished among the top 10 (out of 300) students in the department.

What inspires you to carry on every single day?
I have no specific thing that inspires me on a daily basis, however, I always make sure that the projects I get involved in (either scientific or outreaches) are about things that hold a special place in my heart. I also try to listen to my inner-self. When I feel down or tired, I take a break from serious work

Maybe something that can’t go unnoticed is the thought of my daughter being proud of me and what I do. That makes me push harder even when I need to take a break. I have realised that even if she doesn’t mention it right away, it always comes up in the conversation later. The words, “you remember that thing you did last time, I shared the link with all my friends. I was super proud of you”, mean more than I can explain here. It gives me joy to know that I am not only a mother to her, but also a role model.

Any prestigious awards and achievements so far?

Yes I have hit some milestones that I am very proud of. If you are in academia you know how important it is to have your papers accepted and published in reputable journals. So far, I have published 5 scientific articles & high-level reports plus 2 manuscripts under review at eLife and Nature.

I also co-organized workshops, conferences and other events in Rwanda. I was a faculty member for 2 annual ICI3D workshops; one in South Africa, and the other in USA. I actively contribute to a more gender-wise work environment (STEM sector) in Rwanda as part of my attributions at RAWISE. I am also part of the Rwanda COVID-19 joint-task force, specifically I provide prediction of potential future cases to the Government.

Recently I have been featured in the 1 million women in STEM campaign for my work in disease and climate modelling.

I was honoured to give an invited speech before the President of Rwanda – President Paul Kagame – for the official Launch of AIMS in Rwanda.

What else do you do outside work?
Love reading biographies & fiction. I enjoy being outside sightseeing green spaces (fields, forests) and blue (oceans, lakes, waterfalls) and hiking when I can.

I am a voice for women in STEM & I motivate the younger generation through RAWISE. RAWISE was created by a group of Rwandan women who shared a common feeling of lacking a platform to put us together. The inception of this idea was in 2015 and on 23rd March 2018, the organisation was officially launched. We stand on 4 strong pillars; capacity development, community building, influencing policies, and promoting gender-based research. The main aim of RAWISE is to empower young girls to pursue more STEM related subjects, and we do this through outreaches in high schools. Our dream is to build a hub/platform where we can meet as women and girls, and have senior professionals mentor us and take us through their journeys and possibilities of making it in life as a woman in STEM. We basically want to integrate science with reality around us. We want young girls to know that they are not alone; we are in this together.

A quote:
Mine (These came as a result of me realising at one point in my life that I have taken a decision that was completely non-standard);

  • Be bold and have the courage to go against the flow.
  • Be flexible and open to the unexpected – especially good opportunities.

From other people;

  • We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”, Marie Curie
  • Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.” Mae Jemison

Anything additional, word of encouragement, future steps?
My word of encouragement to young girls is; “You are smart enough to do sciences and are strong enough to succeed at it”.

And for anyone out there, if you are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t help you grow, develop yourself or improve your career, irrespective of your age, that’s not the right person for you. A good person should be able to help you grow further, learn more, open your wings and help you fly [2]

Thank you Eva for taking your time to do this with me.

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