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International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024

Updated: Mar 19


On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed on February 11th, AfricaRice advocates for the equitable inclusion of women and girls in the field of science. As part of our commitment to this cause, we interviewed Esther Pegalepo, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Plant Breeding at AfricaRice, to gain her valuable insights and experiences regarding the role of women and girls in the scientific community.


Can you share your journey into the field of science and what inspired you to pursue a career in this field?

Since my early childhood, I've been fascinated by agriculture. My mother used to take all her children to the fields on weekends. I was particularly impressed by the fact that you can sow just a few seeds and harvest exponentially after several months. So, after completing my secondary education, I enrolled at the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon to gain a deeper understanding of the basics of agriculture. In 2001, I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Natural Sciences, followed by a Master's degree in Plant Biotechnology in 2003. This gave me the opportunity to study plants in depth by sequencing their DNA. Fascinated and passionate about Biotechnology, I moved to the field of vitro plant and seed production, graduating in 2006 with a Diploma of Higher Specialized Studies (DESS) in Seed Production with a specialization in the Seed Industry. Finally, in 2020, I graduated with a PhD in Plant Genetic Resources and Crop Protection at Abomey Calavi University in Benin.


What are some of the challenges you've faced as a woman working in the science sector, and how have you overcome them?

Decades ago, the scientific field was largely a male preserve, with very few women. Those who did manage to rise above the fray faced massive difficulties such as intimidation, harassment, discrimination and so on.

As a woman, I experienced some of these challenges, such as lack of access to certain environments reserved exclusively for men. I have often been lucky enough to work with people who are open and willing to collaborate with me as a woman in science.

It is vital to be tenacious and focused on your objectives, so that you are not put off by anyone.


Could you highlight some of your most significant  projects you've worked on at AfricaRice?

I joined AfricaRice in 2014 as Research Assistant in plant breeding and in charge of coordinating Breeding Task Force (BTF) activities in AfricaRice member countries.

Each year, the advanced rice lines according to the ecologies are sent to the national agricultural research institutes for evaluation by the breeders. At the end of this evaluation, the lines adapted to each country are released and registered in the catalogs of varieties created for this purpose. The technical data sheets of these varieties (developed or not by AfricaRice) released years before, have been sent by member countries, cleaned up and made available to the public via the AfricaRice website.

Through One CGIAR's Transforming Agri-Food System (TAFS) Initiative, I had the privilege to work directly with groups of women rice producers where new technologies (new high-yielding varieties, climate change and abiotic stress resilience and good agricultural and post-harvest practices) were transferred with an impact on production.


Can you discuss the importance of gender equality in the science sector, and what initiatives or changes you'd like to see in the future?

It is crucial to promote gender equality in scientific fields, because at university, men and women take the same training courses and have the same degrees.

Worldwide, I would like equal pay for women and men for the same degree and the same specialization, in addition to equal professional recognition.

I am glad that within One CGIAR, there are plenty of women occupying high-ranking positions like Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, CGIAR Executive Managing Director and many others in top institutions.


How does your work at AfricaRice contribute to addressing challenges such as food security, sustainability, or climate change?

AfricaRice's mission is to provide rice-based innovations and transformed agrifood systems, on the one hand, and to contribute to the transformation of food, land, and water systems in the face of climate change, on the other.  Thus, in the past, selection criteria for lines to be advanced to registration were based more on yield. Nowadays, to ensure food safety, we need to know product characteristics desired by consumers.  For this reason, the Target Product Profiles established in each country enable me, as a breeder, to make a meticulous selection of parents and the lines derived from them, based on several criteria which will enable the final product to satisfy most actors of the rice value chain in each country. Furthermore, as a rice breeder, innovations such as new rice varieties that are high-yielding, resistant to various stresses and resilient to climate change should be constantly on the agenda. Indeed, every newly developed variety needs to be better than its predecessors.  This is the breeder's philosophy, enabling him or her to achieve their objectives and adapt to the needs of producers and the local communities.


How do you balance your professional career with other aspects of your life, such as family or personal interests?

Balancing work and family life is not easy for a woman, because despite getting home from work at the same time as her husband, she still has to tackle the domestic chores. The husband often waits for his wife to cook for him, even though they are both tired, not to mention taking care of the children. However, for the well-being of the family and without neglecting my professional career, I have to prioritize some of my tasks in order to find the right balance.


Lastly, as a role model for other women and girls interested in science, what advice would you give to those considering a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)?

I joined AfricaRice in 2014 as a Research Assistant, and the chance to meet some high-profile women like Dr. Marie-Noelle Ndjiondjop, in charge of AfricaRice's gene bank, boosted my ambition to pursue a PhD in 2020.  Following this successful academic experience and as a role model for women, I encourage young girls interested in STEM and wishing to pursue a career in this field, not to give up. I would simply suggest that they be ambitious and tenacious because the gamble is never won in advance. They have to believe in their dreams. Finally, they need a good mentor by their side to achieve their goals.



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