Founder of STEM Girls Africa and President at ZiMSA-Zimbabwe Medical Students Association
Laura is a medical student studying at the University of Zimbabwe. She is Founder of STEM Girls Africa and President at ZiMSA-Zimbabwe Medical Students Association. She is a focused and diligent young lady aspiring to make a meaningful change in the Zimbabwean Healthcare system, by saving lives one day at a time. She is also passionate about achieving the United Nations Sustainable Goals by 2030, with a particular interest in Good Health and well-being, Climate Action, Life Below Water, and Responsible Consumption and Production.
WiredUp had a Q & A interview session with Laura Tanaka Maisvoreva, Founder of STEM Girls Africa and President at ZiMSA-Zimbabwe Medical Students Association
Who is Laura Tanaka Maisvoreva? What is your background?
My name is Laura, and I am a medical student at the University of Zimbabwe. I live in Harare and grew up there. I attended Chisipite Junior and Senior School. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend these prestigious schools, and they laid the foundation for who I am today. I appreciate the diversity of culture and subjects I was exposed to during my secondary education, and the opportunities that came with it. From a young age, I was always oriented towards science-related subjects, and had a deep appreciation for how things work in different systems. I always knew I would enter a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, and from quite early on aspired to be a scientist. It is nice to look back and to see how my earliest dreams have now materialised. I now participate in various STEM activities, do research and write articles on topics focused on key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I am passionate about achieving the United Nations Sustainable Goals by 2030, with a particular interest in good health and wellbeing, climate action, life below water, and responsible consumption and production.
What was your reason for being someone who aspires to bring about a meaningful change in the healthcare system?
Everyone has the right to health. And everyone must be able to access healthcare services. I have always wanted to be a part of health care, but what really ignited the passion was when I participated as a volunteer in an outreach programme in 2016 during my school holidays. The programme is entitled Mama neMwana (Mother and Child) and is a programme designed to minimise in-home births and reduce the infant mortality rate. In addition, it aims to give mothers and children, who could not otherwise afford it, the care and attention they require to be healthy. The experience of aiding and helping the women and their children gave me great satisfaction, and I still participate in the programme in my free time. There is nothing more satisfying than community service. It is a truly rewarding experience and something I would recommend to everyone, to do in their free time and in their respective fields/areas of interest. Being a part of the outreach programme made me realise the importance of equity and equality in healthcare service delivery, especially for underprivileged communities. I feel that more needs to be done to ensure adequate service provision for the said communities.
Something else I observed, which consolidated my passion to see meaningful change in health care in Zimbabwe, was a short rotation I undertook in a Haematology ward in 2018. During my short time observing, some patients died in the ward and the experience was shocking – you visit them one day, and the next they are gone. I suppose what was shocking was not necessarily the short space of time, but rather that they died a preventable death. When I inquired about the circumstances and causes of death, it was explained to me that the patients died simply because of the lack of facilities that would have allowed for timely intervention and saving lives. Simply put, they died just because the resources (machines, testing resources, sometimes even appropriate medication) were unavailable. Sometimes the resources are there, but are so scarce that they are costly to use, which is not feasible for the majority of the population. I sensed a deep need to do what I could to influence positive change, especially in the public sector. I understand that I will not be able to do it all by myself, but I am willing to try as best I can and to collaborate to ensure that the situation becomes more equitable and access to health is significantly improved.
What achievements are you most proud of? It is difficult to pick one, because they all are things I was honoured to be a part of! I will probably say one of the achievements I am most proud of is being accepted into the Yale Young Global Scholars (YYGS) programme for Biomedical Sciences back in 2018. The interesting thing about this achievement is that it was also one of my biggest disappointments. I was unable to attend this programme, which was my dream to attend, because I was also selected to represent Zimbabwe at the GENIUS Olympiad being held in the United States. I then had to choose one to attend. The two programmes would mean taking time off school, which at that time was not feasible, considering I would be writing finals at the end of that year. I attended the GENIUS Olympiad, which was an unforgettable experience, and also something I was proud of. The reason why the Yale programme still outweighs the GENIUS Olympiad is the fact that I had been considered and deemed worthy of attending such a prestigious programme. I was proud that, in a pool of competitive global applicants, I was chosen as one of the few to attend the programme. Being noticed by an Ivy League school that I one day hoped to be a part of, whether through programmes such as YYGS or in further education endeavours, was in itself a huge achievement.
What challenges have you encountered on your journey, and how have you overcome some of these challenges?
I suppose, whenever you are trying something new or exploring unfamiliar territory, you are bound to encounter roadblocks and this can be frustrating and sometimes even discouraging. But with every setback there is an opportunity to learn and to grow. One of the challenges I experienced was when I worked on a group project which we presented at multiple science fairs. The first science fair we presented it at was a complete disaster. Our model was all over the place and you could see in the judges’ eyes that they were not convinced of our idea. Frustrated, we could have left it and moved on, but someone else, who has become an influential mentor to me, saw potential. He contacted us soon after that science fair and came to see our project. We worked on it, improved it, and it took us far. We were able to present it at three science fairs in different countries! I learnt the value of accepting criticism meant for my benefit and for the benefit of making something the best possible version it can be. In retrospect, I see why our project was not working well and I am grateful that we were able to come to this realisation, because it only helped us develop it further. It sometimes takes multiple tries to get something right, with much to learn and experience to gain during the process. I love the quote that says, “Never let the mistakes you made discredit the growth you've made. You’re allowed to take steps back to move forward.” Ultimately, the key to overcoming any challenge is to view things objectively, learn to take constructive criticism, and act on it. The more feedback you can get on something you are working on, the better, for sometimes our lenses are so obscured by what we as individuals want to accomplish that we overlook fine details. Because of this experience, I value the opinions of those I work with and seek help from, knowing that they all have my best interests at heart.
How do you think we can start to get more African children exposed to STEM?
I think it is always important to first analyse what prevents or stops people from participating in a certain activity. A possible explanation for the youth not wanting to join a STEM field is that they think or are made to believe that it is difficult. It would be naive to sell the story that STEM is simple, but it is safe and realistic to say that it is manageable if you are willing to put in the work. There are so many myths about who STEM is for: some will say STEM is for the male population, others will say STEM is for people with certain grades or a certain level of intellect, whilst others will say STEM is too complex and abstract for the practicalities of everyday living. These are limiting factors as far as exposure to STEM is concerned.
In order to get more African children exposed to STEM, these theories and ideas need to be demystified. Science, or STEM rather, needs to be made interesting, because it is interesting, and even in its complexities there is beauty underlying the equations, numbers, and symbols. It has practical uses and people are using STEM to solve real and big issues. By attending science fairs and seeing what other young people are doing with STEM, I have seen that young people are really changing the world with their STEM ideas. The most interesting project I know of was where the person used a potato to generate electricity, in an attempt to target energy provision problems in her community! How awesome is that! Innovation is key. Couple that with STEM and people can do a lot. African children can be exposed to STEM more if it is taken further than the classroom and used to create projects. There is more to what they need than finishing their curriculum and passing their exams. They need to apply what they have learnt and be innovative, and there are so many platforms for sharing these ideas. Creating platforms to share these ideas is a great incentive to enhance exposure, especially because the experience of meeting others with different kinds of projects is motivating and inspiring enough to help someone pursue a career or long-term path in STEM. STEM also needs to be incorporated into extracurricular activities. At my high school we had ‘Science Club’ as an extracurricular activity. Adopting such activities is another way of increasing engagement in STEM, in a non-academic or informal setting.
To summarise, the key things that would increase the interest and participation of young Africans in STEM would be to demystify STEM as something difficult, encourage innovation to create STEM projects, and incorporate STEM into extracurricular activities. These things, I believe, would definitely help recruit more young people in Africa into STEM.
What is your message to upcoming young Africans about STEM?
STEM is an exciting field. The general notion or stereotype is that STEM is for ‘nerds’ or for people who know a lot. STEM is for everyone, and it is exciting because of its diversity and versatility. The field of STEM is broad and dynamic enough to always keep you interested so you never get bored with it. There is always something to learn. And there are people in the field who are ready and willing to help you along your STEM journey. Many people have gone before us and laid the foundation of what we know today. There are many people who are there to mentor you and help you along the way. So, my message is to not be deterred by misconceptions of what science or STEM is all about, and be open minded enough to explore the vast world of STEM. Be keen to learn, and use your knowledge to solve the world’s problems. If you ever get stuck, reach out! And my last piece of advice would be to collaborate. Collaboration is at the centre of achieving great things and reaching heights, especially in STEM. I would not be where I am without the help of my peers, colleagues, and mentors, which emphasises the importance of working with like-minded individuals who are also dedicated and equally enthusiastic about your work. We are all just pieces of one big puzzle and your piece is important and relevant to add to the picture! Your STEM contribution could be important to solving both local and global problems and we need to work together to make a difference in this world. Do not let anything hinder or discourage you, whether it is because you are young, or because of the colour of your skin or even your gender. The world is waiting for new and novel ideas, many of which are germinating in your very brains! Be confident in your abilities, knowing that there are many of us who support you and want to welcome you and guide you throughout your journey in STEM.