Women In STEM: Spotlight On Civic Tech Innovation Network Coordinator, Dr Geci Karuri-sebina


Aug. 31, 2021, 10:41 a.m.

It is not everyday we see women taking the bold step to venture into the STEM field. The term “STEM” stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. To pursue a career in the STEM field, one requires the ability to work across all four of its component disciplines, at a high level of understanding of each. It also requires an aptitude for problem-solving, creativity, and innovative thinking and remarkable intelligence. So when women take on such challenges, they deserve to be acknowledged. Below is an interview with Dr. Geci Karuri-Sebina, a Johannesburg-based Associate Professor, who holds undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Sociology (with a minor in Art & Design), dual masters degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning, and a Ph.D. in Planning and Innovation Systems.

Who are you, and what do you do?

“Who are you” sounds like a bigger existential question, but “what I do” – After many years working in the public sector for government, science councils, and state entities broadly on issues of development planning, policy, and governance, I have transitioned into working on more civic- and design-oriented programs, as well as more advisory roles. I currently coordinate the Civic Tech Innovation Network which is an African community of practice of various public interest innovators. I am also an Associate Professor at Wits University where I am helping to set up a new African center of excellence in digital governance which will serve as a hub for knowledge-based capacity building of governance actors on addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by digitalization in the public sector, society, and industry. I also continue to work on urban governance and futures issues through my other associations at South African Cities Network, UCT’s African Centre for Cities, and Singularity University.

How did you get into STEM?

I was always interested in science, which is probably why when I got to college to study architecture I immediately gravitated towards physics and computer science. I thus detoured in my 1st degree towards a computer science degree and got very involved in science research and coding competitions. However, after my first internship in the field as a software tester and working on implementing ISO standards for software development, I discovered that while industry work in this field was technically interesting and fun, it was not fulfilling for me. Something was missing – and that was the question of the social or community purpose of my work. This is when I began my journey in combining social sciences with my S&T training. Late in the day (in my 3rd year), I decided to add on a 2nd undergraduate degree in Sociology which I managed to complete and win a thesis award for. In a way, this became a defining experience for me – one of not just conforming to what programs or jobs are specified, but of constantly looking for what feels meaningful even if it means doing things that are “off the menu” so to speak. I had the same experience at Masters (dual degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning) and Ph.D. levels (Planning + Innovation Systems Studies) where I “hybridized” things and crossed disciplines, even though it often meant doing double the work.

What achievement are you most proud of? 

I have been most proud of mentoring and supporting young people – because I was also mentored and supported in my journey, but also because I am aware that I can only go so far. I used to say that my success would be in finding myself reporting to people who I had mentored. It has happened three times now, and I hope for much more of it! I believe I will vicariously have exponential impacts.

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What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Being a young, black, African woman meant that I was a minority through much of my journey. I got used to being in a world of white men where I was either being ignored or condescended, no matter how much I proved my capabilities and worth. But I was lucky to have strong roots to draw upon, and also to have found allies along the way who helped me navigate these strange waters. But it has been a continuous journey of learning and evolving, I must say. There is always the danger of calcifying into one thing to survive which is also self-defeating.

What opportunities do you see in STEM in Africa?

For me, STEM is one critical leg for how we can creatively and competently develop the solutions and contextualized innovations that we need in Africa across a range of basic life-supporting fields – health, food production, basic infrastructure, environment, manufacturing, and so forth. But I am most interested in the moves towards STEAM (adding in the arts and humanities) where we begin to expand our ways of knowing and learning and to leverage convergences in really interesting ways. From my own experience, I see how this shift can both inspire novel creations as well as inspire many more people to see a new value (and values) in STEM.

What is your message to young Africans about STEM?

Don’t see STEM as just a route to traditional professions – Doctor, Engineer, Academic. There are so many ways in which these technical knowledge fields can be leveraged towards the kinds of issues that you care about, and new technologies are opening many democratized opportunities for anyone to pick and play various roles.

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