Interview by Harold Bowa, UbuntuNet Alliance
“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” Maya Angelou
Dr. Sansa-Otim is a resourceful and productive researcher who takes pride and initiative in going above set objectives. She is currently the Vice Chairperson of the board of directors for UbuntuNet Alliance for Research and Education Networking and a senior Lecturer at Makerere University College of Computing and Information Sciences in Uganda.
She leads the IoT-ra lab (formerly WIMEA-ICT lab). Under her leadership, the IoT lab developed a number of innovative solutions including: i) a low-cost automatic weather station; ii) weather information dissemination systems; iii) weather data repositories and weather forecast models. These solutions were not only deployed in Uganda (in partnership with the Uganda National Meteorological Authority) but also in Tanzania, South Sudan, Ghana and Nigeria. She has also undertaken multi-disciplinary studies with colleagues from the Health, Agriculture and Electrical Engineering disciplines. Her research lab has won research grants from a number of Development agencies, resulting into capacity building within the Computer Networks department, which she led for seven years.
Julianne has published widely in international peer reviewed journals and conferences. She received a PhD in Communications Networks from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, after studying “Internet High-speed Data Transport Protocols.” Prior to that she had completed a MSc. in Computer Science and a BSc. in Computer Science and Mathematics from Makerere University. Her current research interests are Internet-of-things for developing regions, ICT4Development, Communications Network Protocol Design, telecommunication policies analysis, Quality of Service, Quality of Experience and Systems Security. Julianne is currently the Principal Investigator of a 5-year multi-disciplinary international research project studying technologies for pollinator protection and insect pest control (www.ademnea.net).
Can you share with us what inspired you to first get involved in STEM field?
From an early age, my mother expressed so much belief in my abilities, which encouraged me to keep exploring and to express myself freely. Later on, the teachers in my “only-girls” high school, recognized the performance of the excellent students. Being on the excellent Girls list each school term particularly in the science subjects further boosted my confidence. Going for a STEM career evolved naturally as I simply followed my strengths. There was little known about Computers in 1998, when I was completing my high school. My curious mind desired to understand this mysterious discipline so I applied to study computer science at the university.
When I completed my Computer Science bachelors, I was offered the opportunity to become a Teaching Assistant at Makerere University. Over the years, I have been blessed with wonderful mentors, who opened up career growth opportunities for me hence my remaining in this field for over two decades.
What have been some of the highlights of your career as a woman in STEM?
In 2013, I won my first significant grant. It had taken about two years to learn the grant writing skill, and it required enormous time and effort amidst other competing priorities. This grant facilitated me in leading an international and multidisciplinary team to set up the WIMEA lab (which has since been renamed the IoT-ra lab [www.iot-ra.net]) at Makerere. In the IoT-ra lab we have supported over 10 PhD students and several Masters students. The studies undertaken have contributed significantly to applications in weather information management (www.wimea.net), pollinator protection & pest control (www.ademnea.net) in the East African region
How has your experience in the field improved as the world moved towards more inclusive approaches to STEM since the time you got involved?
My bachelors class had 35 students of which only five of us were female, so, a ratio of 1:7. It’s thrilling to now teach the Bachelors of Software Engineering classes where they have reached the ideal ratio of 1:1. The Masters classes are a bit worrying as they still have similar ratios to what they were when I was a student. On a positive note on the PhD program we have ensured to offer equal fellowship opportunities to both male and female candidates. At international conferences and other fora, there are significantly more women than it was 20 years, although the men are still more.
You have served as a board member for UbuntuNet Alliance for research and education networking for 4 years, during which you have taken on the role of vice chair of the board. What do you think is the role of UbuntuNet alliance as an RREN and its member NRENs in the initiative to increase the numbers of women in STEM, especially with regards to the AfricaConnect project?
Role models inspire the younger generation, so the RREN and NRENs can encourage more women in this space by affirmatively employing the qualifying women and giving them visibility.
The contributions of excellent Women already in the workforce should be recognized.
The work places also need to accommodate unique needs that may arise e.g. maternity/paternity leave, daycare for those with little children as well as the work at home option.
Meeting timings and locations should be inclusive for all e.g. having office events as evening cocktail disadvantage women more than men due to family responsibilities.
As the Vice Chairperson of the board, what are some of your plans and expectations for the RREN going forward?
At the Ubuntunet Alliance, we have just started to implement a new strategic plan 2023-2027, and it has six exciting strategic objectives. Personally, I am most delighted about the second one, which will position the Alliance as an enabler for world-class research and innovation. My expectation is that the research resources and collaboration portal will lead to more innovative and impactful research in the UA region and the African continent as a whole
Can you share any words of encouragement to women who are committed to a career in STEM across the African continent?
Build your competency and believe in your abilities.Find good mentors and when you do value their feedback and diligently reach out to them for guidance.
Where you find yourself the only or one of few females, count it an awesome privilege being a pioneer and fight off imposter syndrome tendencies silencing any doubts and inner critic.
Family demands are real so negotiate for support from family and friends where possible. Negotiate for the flexible work at home option where possible considering that the Covid-19 pandemic opened up the world to be more accepting of this working arrangement.
Hope y’all inspired by the words of Maya Angelou as I am “I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.”