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#STEMStories: Gladys, GIS and remote sensing, Kenya

Initially, Mosomtai wanted to be a doctor and in high school, she started calling herself Dr. Gladys. However after the late Prof. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel prize for her work in protecting the environment, Mosomtai developed an interest in environmental studies and joined Kenyatta University to pursue a degree in Environmental Planning and Management. She developed a particular interest in the use of space technology to solve global environmental challenges. 

After graduation, she joined International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) and worked on several projects which ranged from understanding the movement patterns of pastoralist in spreading fever disease to mapping vector habitats that cause disease outbreaks to looking at the impact of climate change on species distribution in different scenarios.

At the moment, Mosomtai works on the impact of landscape structure and composition in modifying plot level microclimate that affects pest population and disease incidences in smallholder farms through the extraction of information from satellite images. She also employs the use of various software, programming and data mining techniques to achieve her objectives. 

Mosomtai's job and the expertise that come with it, really excite her, "I love my job. I am so passionate about space science and its vast applications to answer research questions in both terrestrial and aquatic biomes and the fact that it requires me to be a savvy in various fields such as data mining techniques, programming etc." 

One of the biggest highlights in her career has been her recent L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa award. "This has open many doors of opportunities that has allowed me to inspire more women into science. I have also been able to co-author more than ten publications in peer-reviewed journals and have collaborated with many scientist globally," she elaborates.  
Mosomtai feels that women are faced with both external and internal barriers in the STEM space. An external barrier would be the lack of female mentors in STEM, "most of my mentors have been male and that’s a reflection of the reality of women in STEM. Few of them have broken the glass ceiling in their careers, they are inaccessible to most young women for mentorship," she elaborates. Another barrier would be societal perception of women as the primary carer givers in their families and the STEM field as not being a family friendly career option; "for women who have opted for these careers, they have to battle with guilt each time they choose their careers [over their families]," she explains. 

Internal barriers facing women would be the self doubt and second guessing themselves when it comes to leadership positions and on the opposite end of the spectrum confident women in leadership positions are viewed as being aggressive, strong willed, arrogant and not adhering to the definition of how women should behave. Mosomtai feels that more "women have to be intentional in breaking these internal barriers. More women in leadership positions will translate to change in work environment that is pro women." 


Mosomtai feels that the lack of young female interest in STEM is an attitude problem and has very little to do with males being better than females with regards to sciences. She believes that young women should approach the STEM field with complete confidence and the belief that they have what it takes to succeed in those fields; "we [women] need to bring our mark, our perspective and innovations that have women in mind and only women can do that, therefore, there are immense opportunities in STEM awaiting for us out there," she emphasizes.

Mosomtai feels that women in Africa have to overcome many hurdles to be able to take up the opportunities available to them. Efforts to pave the way for women in STEM include increased STEM related opportunities and scholarships that are geared towards promoting women in STEM and the intentional setting up of female quotas for women by funding bodies and employers. Mosomtai feels that, "Africa is making progress, but it feels like a snail pace compared to the western world but still, the future looks promising for a young African woman in STEM." 

Read more about this passionate Geeky Girl, Gladys Mosomtai in an inspiring interview below, where you can extract gems of knowledge just as she extracts information from satellite images. 

1. Describe what your work entails. 
In a typical day, my work involves extracting information from satellite images to understand how we are modifying our landscapes and the consequences of these changes in influencing biological processes. For instance, habitat loss due to human encroachment or proliferation of pests and vectors that cause disease and pest outbreaks. I use various software, programming and data mining techniques to achieve my objectives.  
2. Describe your STEM journey.
Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. At the time, it was among the mainstream career options that many kids knew about. In high school, I started calling myself Dr. Gladys and to this day, I still have those books. Unfortunately, I did not perform very well to enrol in medicine but I had also developed interest in environmental studies specifically after the late Prof. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel peace prize, which highlighted her work on protecting the environment.
I joined Kenyatta University to pursue a degree in Environmental Planning and Management and in one of the modules; I picked an interest in the use of space technology to solve global environmental challenges. After graduation, I joined International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) where I worked on several exciting projects such as understanding movement patterns of pastoralist in spreading Rift valley fever disease that affect both humans and animal, mapping vector habitats that cause disease outbreaks and looking at impact of climate change under different scenarios on species distribution. 
Currently, I am working on impact of landscape structure and composition in modifying plot level microclimate that affects coffee pest population and disease incidences in smallholder farms. I have had mentors who have been very influential in my career and being around successful scientist specifically women, has allowed me to lift-off some self-limiting believes that has been inculcated by culture especially on the one sided narrative on women and the place of women in the society. This has greatly changed my outlook of women and science.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?
I love my job. I am so passionate about space science and its vast applications to answer research questions in both terrestrial and aquatic biomes and the fact that it requires me to be a savvy in various fields such as data mining techniques, ecology, programming etc. I also want to be a role model to young women and pave way for others as well.   
4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?
Most of my mentors have been male and that’s a reflection of the reality of women in STEM. Few of them have broken the glass ceiling in their careers, they are inaccessible to most young women for mentorship, and this stifle the efforts of having as many women in STEM. The societal set up assigns women the role of being the primary carer givers in their families and these limits them in pursuing some STEM courses, which are viewed as not being family friendly careers. For women who have opted for these careers, they have to battle with guilt each time they choose their careers. 
This is worsen when the men in their lives are not supportive of this career option. Some women have had to forego opportunities that would require them to stay away from their families while the male counterparts would gladly take these opportunities knowing that they have someone to take care of their family. 

Despite the external barriers, women are faced with internal barriers, which limit them from taking up positions of leadership in STEM. Most women don’t have the courage to sit on those tables in boardrooms because we second guess ourselves and those who are aggressive and strong willed are viewed as being arrogant and don’t fit into the definition of how women should behave. 
Women have to be intentional in breaking these internal barriers. More women in leadership positions will translate to change in work environment that are pro women, such as having crèche in work place, securing parking spaces for pregnant women, more flexible working hours for lactating women etc. and this will attract more women into STEM. 

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?
Research shows that as young as six years old, girls show disinterest in STEM. This is an attitude problem and it has nothing to do with girls being not as brilliant as boys are. Therefore, young women should approach STEM field with complete confidence that they got what it takes to succeed in those fields. Secondly, they have to withstand and not succumb to the pressure of society especially on marriage. 
Every woman should be able to take charge of their life and prioritize what is important to them and if that means delayed marriage, then, they should be able to do that without any coercion. ‘Women need science and science need women’, we need to bring our mark, our perspective and innovations that have women in mind and only women can do that, therefore, there are immense opportunities in STEM awaiting for us out there.  
6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”? 
Unfortunately, I can’t say 100% that Africa is a land of opportunity for an African woman. We have to overcome more hurdles to be able to take up these opportunities. Nonetheless, there are efforts already in the pipeline to pave way for an African woman in STEM. 
We see more STEM related opportunities and scholarships that are geared towards promoting women in STEM. Funding bodies and employers are becoming more intentional in setting up quotas for women and more women are gaining the confidence to apply for jobs that initially they would shy away from. Africa is making progress, but it feels like a snail pace compared to the western world but still, the future looks promising for a young African woman in STEM 

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career? 
My recent L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa award has so far been one of my highlight in my career. This has open many doors of opportunities that has allowed me to inspire more women into science. I have also been able to co-author more than ten publications in peer-reviewed journals and have collaborated with many scientist globally yet I am 30 years now – I like to consider that as a milestone.  
8. How do you maintain a work-life balance? 
Science can easily take up most of your time if you are not intentional about your social life. During my MSc, I succumb to a mental health problem, since then, I am more careful of my mental state and having a thriving social and spiritual life is a key component. I am engaged in community work like feeding the street children or mentoring young women as well as an active member in my church, where I volunteer in different ministries and I have a solid support system from friends and family who make life in STEM a whole lot of fun. 


9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?  
The late Prof. Wangari Maathai still remain to be that beacon of hope that I can also make an impact as she did but I also, have people whom I see them every day and how they are succeeding in their different roles.  
10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found? 
Twitter Handle: @mosomtai 
Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gladys_Mosomtai 
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gladys-mosomtai-824b7119/  
Gladys Mosomtai interviewed by Dhruti Dheda 

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd