SA’s Einstein ambassador tells of ‘difficult’ year
With just a few months to go before the 2019-2021 cohort of the Next Einstein Forum’s ambassadors wrap up their tenure, ITWeb spoke to the forum’s ambassador for South Africa, Jeshika Ramchund.
The forum aims to create a ‘unified African scientific identity’ and inspire young people to pursue careers in science and technology. Its work is based on the belief that the next Einstein will be born in Africa.
The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) ambassadors are young leaders in science and technology, and are chosen from each African country. Ambassadors must be under 42, and are tasked with driving the NEF’s regional public engagement activities.
Rolling with the punches
Ramchund works as a lead engineer in the developments division of Bosch Projects in Durban. The 35-year-old has over a decade of experience in water management, wastewater and integrated development projects. Her accomplishments include serving as the chairperson of Consulting Engineers South Africa’s (CESA) gender diversity forum and as a member of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers Africa’s (FIDIC) diversity and inclusivity committee.
Much of this cohort’s tenure has been affected by COVID-19 lockdowns. The NEF’s biennial event, the Global Gathering, was supposed to have been held in Nairobi last March but had to be moved online and was finally hosted in December. The Global Gathering provides a platform for scientists and technologists to showcase their work in expanding the reach of STEM initiatives on the continent.
Summing up her ambassadorship, Ramchund says, “It’s been difficult... different. But coping with the changes helped us prepare for the future.”
The NEF agenda had changed quite significantly from March to December, she says. "There were supposed to be talks around developmental matters such as incubation, but not being in the same room together wasn’t conducive (to collaboration). We’ve now been focusing on where society is headed in the face of the pandemic.”
Each ambassador has a plan on what they’d like to achieve through their tenure. The cohort is also supposed to amplify each other's messages and strengthen the connection between countries. Building a skills pipeline from primary school is one of the NEF’s targets; and as an engineer, building the STEM pipeline – with a focus on achieving gender parity – is one of Ramchund’s personal goals.
If we want to create employment at scale, we need to make STEM and entrepreneurship the first choice for the brightest in South Africa and Africa.Jeshika Ramchund
Part of the duties of each incumbent ambassador is to organise their country’s Science Week, a week-long celebration of science and technology. SA’s Science Week was going to be held towards the end of 2020. Ramchund says even though hosting online events can be explored as an alternative, ‘it won’t necessarily help us reach students in rural and disadvantaged areas’.
Making STEM the first choice
In December, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) held its annual Science Forum South Africa over three days with a focus on the societal impact of pandemics. Ramchund was invited to share her perspective on what should be done to create a more enabling environment for the deployment of 4IR technologies in the country.
“The department takes quite a lead in the STEM conversation, and it has many initiatives that I was supposed to be part of but we couldn’t roll them out because of the virus," she says.
In her address at the Science Forum, she said, “STEM will be the driver of the changes we want to see. At the heart of this transformation is a prioritisation of basic quality infrastructure to be the backbone of 4IR. There is no silver bullet for this, but an enabling environment can be achieved through prioritising STEM from the little Einsteins in basic education.”
She highlighted the importance of making tech a practical part of all citizens' lives by digitising service delivery. “We need technology for our people. Therefore, STEM has to be more inclusive to harness the best human capital”.
It is also important to create an enabling environment for entrepreneurs and innovators, particularly those in science and engineering, she adds. “We really need to foster public-private collaborations that will create jobs and move us to a more equal society. If we want to create employment at scale, we need to make STEM and entrepreneurship the first choice for the brightest in South Africa and Africa.”
As the final part of her ambassadorship, she is setting up plans for the next cohort to pick up. "Continuity between cohorts is difficult, especially considering our different backgrounds, but we can work on common themes such sectoral diversity and inclusion, just as I did with the previous SA ambassador, biotechnologist Keabetswe Ncube.”
The 2019-21 cohort’s terms ends in November but they can continue their efforts through the Community of Scientists, a network of NEF members meant to inspire young people to pursue science and technology fields and drive Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Ramchund serves as the Champion for the Energy and Infrastructure Focus Area in the Community of Scientists.