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Why Supporting and Inspiring the Next Generation of STEM Leaders in Africa Is a Cause Close to My Heart

Ghaim (center) with children at a refugee camp school built by his dad in Eastern Sudan. [Photo courtesy of the Ghaim family]
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As a young boy growing up in East Africa, I wasn’t exposed to many scientists or researchers—let alone those who came from the country of my birth. But with my mom working for the Swiss Red Cross and my dad working with various relief agencies and orphanages, the types of mentors and role models I did have to look up to were my parents and the healthcare workers from different parts of the world who provided medical care during the horrific wars and famines that took place in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan in the 1980s.

My parents spent most of their time helping to build clinics, schools and shelters at different refugee camps in East Africa, which gave me a great opportunity to learn about the economic challenges, education options and basic healthcare in this region.

During my grammar school, middle school and part of my high school years, we lived in different conflict zones, which provided me a great opportunity to volunteer after school and on weekends as a translator between refugees and healthcare workers. I also had opportunities to work at the refugee camps registering people for relief distribution and help with children’s school programs. I spent hours volunteering and helping wherever I could, and this gave me a profound appreciation for the impact that medicine, science and education can play in people’s lives.

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Meraf, Ghaim’s mother, worked for the Swiss Red Cross at different refugee camps in East Africa. [Photos courtesy of the Ghaim family]

I began studying chemistry, biology, physics and math early in my middle school years in Sudan. Years later, when we moved to the United States so I could begin college, I had an even greater appreciation for the sound scientific education I had received in Africa, as well as the impact my childhood experiences had on my career path.

I knew I wanted to pursue science and research that could potentially help address health care challenges in Africa, as well as other places around the globe.

Many budding scientists-in-the-making who currently live in Africa may think strong science education doesn’t exist in Africa and that they need to travel abroad—like I did—to further their education, but I benefited strongly from my science education in Africa. Plus, there are now many more universities, mentors, and professionals across the continent who are focused on science, technology, engineering and math that could help shape the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) path for Africa.

One organization actively trying to change that perception and build Africa’s visibility and capacity in STEM is the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), which brings together leading thinkers across Africa in science, policy, industry and civil society to help solve global problems.

Last week, while attending the first NEF Global Gathering, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to learn more about the passion and dedication of NEF Fellows, as well as other speakers and participants from government, academia, non-profits and for-profit companies.

I am particularly excited to see leaders from these different sectors interested in forming partnerships and programs to provide more mentors for STEM-related activities, and to drive more STEM education and opportunities in Africa—especially for women. I know these efforts will have a huge impact on the future of scientists and researchers on this continent.

Opportunities in STEM will only continue to grow in Africa and it’s clear that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the innovative programs already underway. For example, Johnson & Johnson is collaborating with an organization called Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), which works with local banana farmers in Rwanda to manufacture and provide affordable sanitary products made from the absorbent fibers of discarded banana leaves. These efforts have helped women and girls avoid missing multiple days at school and work due to a lack of sanitary products, as well as provide much needed jobs.

This is just one of the community-based partners that we have worked with over the past 80 years, and as we continue to expand our presence across the world, it will be exciting to see what the next few years bring in terms of innovation and support for STEM activities in Africa.

Josh Ghaim, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientific Officer for the Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies. In this role, he is responsible for global research, development and engineering organization for the consumer group. Josh is a member of the Consumer Group Operating Committee and the Johnson & Johnson Research & Development Management Committee. Josh has lived and held positions in North America, Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa, focusing on both regional and global initiatives. Josh received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from Indiana University. He has authored a number of peer-reviewed publications in leading scientific journals and several book chapters. Josh also holds over 15 patents in the consumer products categories.

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