Meet 5 women who are using science to help save the planet

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated on 11 February, recognizes the often overlooked contributions of women scientists.

Research shows that despite a shortage of skills in most technological areas, gender disparity still exists in the field. Women make up less than a third of the workforce across science, technology and engineering. Women scientists are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues, and their work tends to be underrepresented in high-profile journals.

Ahead of this year’s Day, we shine a light on five women who are pushing boundaries and using science to help tackle the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste.  

For their work, they have all been selected for the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) prestigious Champions of the Earth and Young Champions of the Earth awards.

1. Dr. Purnima Devi Barman – Champion of the Earth, 2022

For wildlife biologist Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, a childhood fascination with greater adjutants, members of the stork bird family, has blossomed into a lifelong passion.

After completing a Master’s degree in Zoology, Barman started a Ph.D. in 2007 on the greater adjutant stork. But, seeing the ever-dwindling number of the birds she had grown up with, she delayed finishing the degree until 2019 to focus on community conservation education work in rural Assam, India.

Fewer than 1,200 mature greater adjutant storks exist today, less than 1 per cent of what they numbered a century ago, a dramatic decline partly driven by the destruction of their natural habitat.

To help conserve the endangered stork, Barman founded the Hargila Army, an all-female grassroots conservation movement dedicated to protecting these giant birds from extinction. Today, the Hargila Army comprises over 10,000 women who protect nesting sites and rehabilitate injured storks.

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Barman says, “being a woman working in conservation in a male-dominated society is challenging, but the Hargila Army has shown how women can make a difference.”

2. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka – Champion of the Earth, 2021

A wildlife veterinarian and the founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has spent three decades helping safeguard the world’s rarest and endangered primates, such as mountain gorillas in remote communities across East Africa.

In her early 20s, Kalema-Zikusoka returned to Uganda after embarking on a global educational adventure, earning degrees in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Much of her work has been in poor communities that border protected areas, where she has helped improve healthcare and create economic opportunities, turning many locals into partners in conservation.

Recognized globally for her work, Kalema-Zikusoka, says that she hopes she will inspire young Africans to choose careers in conservation. “There is a lack of local representation among conservationists,” she said. “We need more local champions because these are the people who will become decision-makers for their communities and countries.”

3. Nzambi Matee – Young Champion of the Earth, 2020

Nzambi Matee is an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur and the head of Gjenge Makers, the company she founded as a solution to plastic pollution in Nairobi, Kenya.

Gjenge Makers produces sustainable, low-cost construction materials made of recycled plastic waste and sand. Matee developed the prototype for a machine that turns discarded plastic into paving stones.

Matee, who majored in material science and worked as an engineer in Kenya’s oil industry, was inspired to launch her business after routinely coming across plastic bags strewn along Nairobi’s streets. In 2017, Matee quit her job as a data analyst and set up a small laboratory in her mother’s backyard.

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Each day, the business churns out 1,500 plastic pavers, giving a second life to plastic bottles and other containers which would otherwise end up in landfills or, worse, on city streets.

Matee encourages other young people to tackle environmental challenges at the local level. “The negative impact we are having on the environment is huge,” she said. “Start with whatever local solution you can find and be consistent with it. The results will be amazing.”

4. Xiaoyuan Ren – Young Champion of the Earth, 2020

Over 300 million residents in rural China do not have consistent access to clean drinking water. Xiaoyuan Ren wanted to change that.

While researching rural water use in India, she became determined to help address what she calls a mounting water crisis in rural China.

Armed with a dual Master’s degrees in environmental engineering and technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ren started MyH2O. This data platform tests and records groundwater quality across a thousand villages in rural China into an app that lets residents know where to find clean water.

The MyH2O platform relies on a nationwide network of youth volunteers who are trained to test water quality and log their results into the interactive platform. Since its launch in 2015, MyH2O has helped provide clean water to tens of thousands of villagers.

“We work with students studying science, technology, engineering and medicine,” Ren said. “They will go on to develop careers in these fields and create solutions to some of the environmental problems they have seen while working with us.”

5. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe – Champion of the Earth, 2019

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A climate scientist at Texas Tech University, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe’s research has informed climate resilience and climate policy at federal and local levels across the United States and beyond. 

One of the world’s most influential communicators on climate change, Hayhoe’s evaluates long-term observations, future scenarios and global models and develops innovative strategies that translate future projections into relevant, actionable information.

While grateful for the public recognition she has received, such as being selected as a Champion of the Earth, Hayhoe says the most meaningful part of her work is changing minds.

“What means the most to me personally is when just one person tells me sincerely that they had never cared about climate change before…but now, because of something they heard me say, they’ve changed their mind. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

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