On the Cutting-Edge: The Ethiopian Women Shaping Science
Meet four leading Ethiopian women scientists who are tackling some of the most important issues in science and technology affecting the world today
The Plant Pathologist
Considered by Bill Gates as a ‘hero in her field’, Dr. Segenet’s passion for plants began as a child. Born to a farming couple in Finote Selam in 1957, Segenet sold her family’s produce at the local market. She saw both the difficult labor that went into producing crops as well as the effect disease had on the farm’s ultimate profitability. But it was when Segenet witnessed a swarm of locusts wipe out the crops in her village that the situation of regional hunger hit home, sparking her life’s research in molecular plant pathology.
Since then Dr. Segenet has dedicated her life to improving the crops of Africa with a goal to end regional hunger in areas that have poor farming outcomes. She attended Addis Ababa University, graduating in 1979. She continued her studies at Montana State University, receiving her MSc in plant pathology and genetics before completing a PhD in Plant Pathology and Molecular Biology at Kansas State University. Dr. Segenet conducted her postdoctoral research in molecular deterrents of pathogenesis at Cornell University.
In November 2013, Dr. Segenet was appointed Director General of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, the first woman to head the institution.
Based in Nairobi, Dr. Segenet focuses on studying the microorganisms that exist in plants growing across the plains of Africa to understand how plants survive the often-harsh weather patterns, which can lead to floods and persistent droughts.
Dr. Segenet has received numerous awards and recognition for her work, including Outstanding Scientist of the Year (CIAT, 2013) and inclusion in Forbes’ Top 100 Most Influential African Women (2014). Her most recent accolade came in September 2018 with the Women of the Decade award, the highest recognition conferred by the Women Economic Forum.
DR. SOSSINA HAILE
The Chemist Reinventing Fuel
Dr. Sossina Haile is a chemist who, in her own words, ‘likes to think big’. And she is living this edict out, revolutionizing the energy industry with her invention of the first solid acid fuel cell – an entirely new way to fuel our world, reduce pollution and give us our most precious resource as a by-product: water.
Born in 1966 in Ethiopia, Dr. Sossina's family fled to seek refuge in America during the mid-70s. She was raised in Minnesota and graduated from high school in 1983, going on to study at the Max Planck Institut fur Festkörperforschung in Germany. Sossina continued her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before attending the University of California in Berkeley and later returning to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her PhD in Materials Science and Engineering.
Dr. Sossina's research into solid acid fuel cells began in 2008 when she had an idea on how to improve upon existing fuel cells. She invented a new type of compound, labeled ‘Superprotonic’, in order to supply the needed energy. While the prototypes were impressive and promising, Dr. Sossina needed to increase the energy output in order to achieve her goal of replacing the current fuel system in place. This led Dr. Sossina to found her own lab in Pasadena, Ca, where she created a fuel cell based on the mechanisms of plants, that harnesses all available sun rays and processes it into electrical output. This offers exceptional power densities combined with long-term stability.
Currently a professor at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering near Chicago, Dr. Sossina continues to research and develop her fuel cell to allow for broad application in both residential and commercial use. This would enable significant powering of cars, lights, homes and businesses while reducing fossil fuel consumption and by-product pollution.
DR. MAHLET MESFIN
The Science Diplomat
Self-described ‘lover of science and tech, international affairs, equality, justice and adventures’, Dr. Mahlet Mesfin is at the forefront of Science Diplomacy. Her interest in the intersections of science, policy and society stretches back to her time at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was doing a PhD in bioengineering and studying traumatic brain injury. This included learning about the safety standards for football helmet design and demonstrating the role that science can play in addressing societal problems. About halfway through her PhD program, Dr. Mahlet started thinking about connections outside the micro world of proteins to the macro world of science-society issues.
Dr. Mahlet’s life’s work began as AAAS S&T Policy fellow at the Department of Defense's Basic Research Office. She then moved on to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in which she came in as a fellow and, two title changes later, lets as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology (S&T). She led the strategic planning, coordination and execution of the S&T focused bilateral and multilateral engagements under the responsibility of the President’s Science Advisor, strengthened international engagements across OSTP, and championed science and technology as an element of the broader U.S. government’s foreign policy agenda. Dr. Mahlet was also a policy fellow with the Committee for Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Engineering and remains a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Dr. Mahlet is currently the Deputy Director of the Center for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive editor of the open-access policy journal Science & Diplomacy.
The AI Innovator
Technical co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team at Google, Timnit Gebru is a Computer Scientist at the forefront of AI, working on algorithmic bias and data mining. She is also an advocate for diversity in technology and cofounderof Black in Al, a community of black researchers working in artificial intelligence.
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Dr. Timnit emigrated to the United States to study at Stanford University, where she earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in electrical engineering. A stint at Apple followed, developing signal processing algorithms for the first iPad. Dr. Timnit then earned her doctorate under the supervision of Fei-Fei Liat Stanford University in 2017 where she used data mining of publicly available images. She was interested in the amount of money spent by governmental and non-governmental organizations in trying to collect information about communities. To investigate alternatives, Dr. Timnit combined deep learning with Google Street View to estimate the demographics of USA neighborhoods; showing that socioeconomic attributes such as voting patterns, income, race and education can be inferred from observations of cars.
Dr. Timnit now works at Google on the ethics of artificial intelligence, looking to improve the ability of technology to do social good. She also collaborates with the MIT research group Gender Shades. Dr. Timnit worked with Ghanaian-American computer scientist Joy Buolamwini to investigate facial recognition software; finding that black women were 35% less likely to be recognized than white men. When Dr. Timnit attended an AI conference in 2016, she noticed that she was the only black woman out of 8,500 delegates. This led to Dr. Timnit founding Black in AI, an organization fostering collaboration and discussing initiatives to increase the representation of black people in artificial intelligence.