UFH Hosts 3rd International Women in STEM Conference

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The University of Fort Hare recently hosted a major international conference that aims to empower women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. The 3rd International Conference on Women in STEM (WIS) took place on 17-20 February at the Regent Hotel in East London. The event was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation.

The inaugural conference took place in 2015 and was held at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). The 2nd edition took place in 2017  at Howard University in the US.

Themed: “Innovative Research, Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship in the 4IR”, the conference brought together researchers, academics, postgraduate students as well as distinguished scientists from America and South Africa. The objective of the conference is to encourage, inspire and connect with postgraduate students from the country's Historically Disadvantaged Institutions.

In her welcoming remarks, Prof Renuka Vithal (DVC-Academic Affairs) reflected on her own research which draws attention to the challenge of gender inequality in the STEM field.  According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, less than 30% of the world's researchers are women.  Prof Vithal said gatherings such as the WIS are key in closing the gender gap. “Women need to persevere and be resilient to continue their interest in maths and science.”

The conference was chaired by Prof Keolebogile Shirley Motaung, (Assistant Dean - Postgraduate Studies, Research and Innovation at TUT) . She is also the Founder of Global Health Biotech (PTY) LTD, a natural anti-inflammatory ointment manufacturing company. Speaking from experience in her journey to becoming an inventor, Prof Motaung urged students to turn their research into commercial assets. “Publishing papers after papers without commercialising your product or service must come to an end.  We need to see the end product or experience the service,” she said.

Prof Sonya Smith from Howard University co-chaired the conference and shared the same concern as Prof Vithal about the lack of women in STEM. “We get women in STEM but they do not stay. They do not get the support and are often isolated,” she said.

Prof Jean Bailey who is also from Howard said the US and SA will be collaborating in programmes that aim to encourage women to participate in STEM. “We have several intervention programmes and we will share and exchange with SA,” she said.

The delegates engaged in talks about translational and commercialisation research, intellectual property (IP), entrepreneurship and also addressed novel topics applicable to 4IR. There were also several poster sessions and oral presentations.