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How the Newton Mosharafa Fund is empowering women in STEM

For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science we asked women leaders, scientists and innovators involved in the Newton Fund to share their stories and celebrate the impact of women in science.

By Shaimaa El-Banna and Ashraf Amin

We’ve all heard of Ada Lovelace, Sameera Moussa and Marie Curie, but there are many more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that deserve our attention.

Since the launch of the Newton Mosharafa Fund in Egypt, there have been many incredible and inspiring women who have played a key role in finding solutions to challenges facing our country.

The Newton Mosharafa Fund is £50 million, seven-year science and innovation partnership between the UK and Egypt. The Fund brings together the British and Egyptian scientific research and innovation sectors towards achieving economic development and social welfare.

Supported by Newton funding, several female researchers have been able to achieve remarkable steps in fields ranging from sustainable water management and renewable energy, to cultural heritage and affordable and inclusive healthcare.

Today we celebrate female scientists from the UK and Egypt that you really should know about. Their achievements reflect their personal and professional experience of collaborating with their peers through the Newton Fund.


Learning by doing

Dr Ola Gomaa, Professor of Microbial Biotechnology at the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (EAEA), has undertaken a Newton funded research collaboration with University of Westminster to develop an efficient and cost effective technology for water conservation and reuse using microbial fuel cell technology. 

Egypt’s growing population and advances in industry and agriculture is increasing demand for the provision of clean non-potable water. The project has developed a novel technology that uses naturally occurring bacteria in biofilm-based reactors to treat wastewater, and also generate a small amount of electricity.

Dr Ola explains that the fund has been a great learning experience for her:  
"I have gained skills in management and international cooperation. I have gained enough confidence to organize a stakeholder meeting between industry and academia to cover the implementation of single chamber microbial fuel cells in Egypt." 

In addition, Dr Ola says that Newton Fund enabled them to empower young female researchers within their team to give them the opportunity to travel and take a leading role in the project. As a result, those female researchers improved their self-confidence in addition to their skills and knowledge; they are able now to pursue other opportunities and advance in their career and help their country to prosper.


Inspiring younger generations

Dr Heba Elsharkawy is an Egyptian, and Senior Lecturer in Architecture at the University of East London. She received funding from the Newton Fund to develop a dual degree and mutual research cooperation with Ain Shams University in the field of Building Capacity for Sustainable Development of the Built Environment (BC-SDBE).

"I believe Newton Mosharafa has already initiated effective strategies for engaging women with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). In 2017, almost 40% of the PhD scholars who pursued their studies in the UK under NM fund were women, which is a positive indicator" explains Dr Heba.

Recently, the built environment project has been acknowledged as one of the impact case studies to be submitted to the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2021, which is a significant milestone in Dr Heba’s research career.

In order to help close the gender gap in STEM, Dr Heba stresses the importance to start at a younger age where girls need to be raised and educated to build their confidence in their potential capabilities as scientists: "Girls need to be inspired by role models of striving women in the scientific field and experience first-hand mentoring and coaching."


Transferring knowledge and best practice

Dr Samar Abdelazim, Associate Professor in the department of forensic medicine and toxicology at Ain Shams University has benefited from the Newton Mosharafa fund to implement a new collaboration methodology in Egypt.

In collaboration with their peers in University of Nottingham, Dr Samar and her team are tackling the challenge of treating forensic psychiatric patients. Their project is developing an evidence-based treatment system, promoting the evidence-based practice, and establishing an academic degree in forensic psychiatry. The tool they have developed is currently approved by the ministry of health in the patient services.

"It seemed like a very out of reach dream." says Dr Samar. "I worked with the British Council on a number of schemes that helped leverage my capacity until I reached the Newton Mosharafa call. I personally believe that the cumulative experience I gained over the years shaped my capacities and personality as an active contributor in the field of science."

Since 2015, the Newton Mosharafa Fund is working towards achieving a gender balance in STEM. So far, 42 percent of Newton Mosharafa grants have been awarded to female scientists who are addressing key development challenges and promoting social and economic welfare in Egypt. These women will help forge the way for other female scientists and will act as role models for children developing an interest in science. 

Shaimaa El-Banna is Head of Science at British Council in Egypt and Ashraf Amin is Head of the Science & Health Department at Al-Ahram.