African women recognised for stellar research in astronomy


South Africa's Prof. Renée Kraan-Korteweg has been named the first winner of the inaugural African Network of Women in Astronomy (AfNWA) senior award, walking away with a cash prize of €1 500 (almost R25 000) for her contribution to astronomy on the continent.


Also receiving €1 500, as part of the inaugural AfNWA early career award, was Burkina Faso's first woman astronomer, Dr Marie Korsaga.


The AfNWA is a committee of the African Astronomical Society (AfAS) and the International Science Programme of Uppsala University in Sweden. It was set up in 2019 to connect and support women in astronomy across the continent, where new telescopes are being built and innovative world-class science, such as the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, is being produced with growing contributions from women.


Adjudicated by a prestigious panel of astronomers from Africa and abroad, the AfNWA awards recognise the scientific achievements and contributions to society of women in astronomy in Africa. The announcement of the inaugural winners was made during the second AfAS annual conference, which took place in Cape Town from 14 to 18 March.


AfAS is a pan-African professional society of astronomers that focuses on strengthening astronomy activities in Africa, particularly infrastructure projects and initiatives aimed at growing human capital in astronomy among young people and women.


Prof. Kraan-Korteweg, a senior research scholar at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has held a number of high-profile positions over the years, including leading the astronomy departments at UCT and the University of Guanajuato in Mexico. Her work is internationally recognised, and she has received various awards and supervised over 30 graduate students, attracting significant research funding for the growth of astronomy and support of women astronomers in Africa.


Speaking at the awards ceremony at the South African Astronomy Observatory, Prof. Kraan-Korteweg expressed wonder at receiving the inaugural senior award, while praising the women who set up the awards "at the exact moment when we are experiencing a fantastic development of astronomy over the continent of Africa".


"Hopefully, this will really encourage young women to choose a career in astronomy," she said.


Prof. Kraan-Korteweg's research interests include unveiling the large-scale structure of the universe and understanding how it came to be. She uses astronomical observations from various telescopes, and recently discovered a new supercluster of galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way.


Dr Korsaga likewise has numerous achievements under her belt. The first Burkinabe woman to obtain a PhD in astronomy, she is a postdoctoral researcher at the Observatory of Strasbourg in France and a lecturer at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.


Her work focuses on dark matter and where it is found in galaxies. She describes dark matter as "most mysterious, not interacting with ordinary matter except through its gravitational influence". To locate dark matter, she uses observations from optical, infrared and radio telescopes, giving her a broad skill set in astronomy.


Besides research, Dr Korsaga is passionate about the inclusion of women in the global and African astronomy communities, and has given a number of high-profile talks, including a TEDx talk, on the subject. She said her AfNWA award was a reminder and motivation to seek to excel not only in research but also in contributing to the promotion of astronomy in Burkina Faso and other countries in Africa.


To young girls, she said: "Believe in yourself, work hard to reach your goals, and never doubt your abilities." Staying true her words, Dr Korsaga is already working on a project to promote education among internally displaced children in Burkina Faso.


With partners in Belgium, France and her home country, the project aims to alleviate the trauma endured by children and families as a result of the conflicts still ravaging the country, and to stimulate the will to learn and attend school.


Dr Charles Takalana, Head of the AfAS Secretariat, said the AfNWA awards were aimed at advancing the future participation of girls and women at all levels in astronomy and science developments in Africa.


According to the latest report of UNESCO and UN-WOMEN, the representation of women scientists averages below 25% in most African countries.


"Our main objectives are to improve the status of women in science in Africa, while using astronomy to inspire more girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," said Dr Takalana.


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