Empowering Women in STEM Research
When Clara Darko decided to pursue a Ph.D. in biological systems engineering, she knew she’d have to face down other people’s expectations. Though already accomplished as the Agricultural Engineer for Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture in the Ashanti Region, this mother of two knew she would find a lot of people along the way who didn’t think she belonged.
“African society frowns on ladies in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs for no apparent reason,” Darko said. “I have had many instances where people come around and ask me why I’m in this profession. They tell me that it doesn’t suit me. They think I should be a teller in a bank or a receptionist or something else.”
Few women in Ghana pursue degrees in STEM fields. According to the African Research Academies for Women, less than 20 percent of STEM researchers in Ghana are women. Darko believes that statistic will change if women are encouraged to believe in their own intelligence and mentored as they pursue STEM degrees.
Photo: Dr. Clara Darko
“In our society most women are not motivated to do STEM programs because they think the courses are too difficult. Only a few women get in that area and they do not get role models to mentor them. With my experience, I want to mentor ladies who are already in the field to move to the highest levels and also encourage and help them out with the STEM-phobia attitude,” she said.
With a full scholarship from Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program and with support from the Peanut and Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, Darko was able to complete a Ph.D in biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech in December 2016. Her research focused on the impacts of different storage practices in reducing aflatoxin contamination in groundnuts.
Groundnuts are popular in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the climate in Ghana encourages the growth of the naturally occurring Aspergillus molds, which produce aflatoxin. Aflatoxin contamination reduces farmer incomes, and consuming contaminated peanuts over time is linked with liver cancer, stunting in children and immune system disorders. Improper storage of peanuts increases the likelihood of aflatoxin contamination.
Darko, who was advised by associate professor Kumar Mallikarjunan, looked at affordable and easily adoptable storage solutions to control fungal growth and aflatoxin production.
The research showed several practices that can reduce aflatoxin contamination, including partial roasting, which can kill molds and halt aflatoxin production. Partial roasting paired with blanching increased the effectiveness of peanut sorting, a step in the processing chain that greatly reduces aflatoxin contamination in the final product. She also found that storing peanuts in hermetically sealed bags suppresses fungal growth much more efficiently than the more commonly used polypropylene sacks.
While some of the improved storage systems require a capital outlay, farmers can more than recoup their investments.
“Although hermetic storage incurs additional investment costs, the increase in revenue from sales of higher quality peanuts far outweighed the additional costs incurred,” Darko said.
“Profitability analysis conducted as part of this study revealed that the use of the hermetic storage system would not only improve farmer and trader profitability, but also help reduce the incidence of various ailments that have been attributed to aflatoxins.”
Darko is now back at her job as the Ashanti Regional Agricultural Engineer, using her new skills and experience to help farmers across the region increase their incomes. In the future, she plans to open a consulting business to help improve food safety and decrease postharvest loss in Ghana and other Sub-Saharan countries.
Whatever she does in the future, Darko wants to serve as a role model for young women.
“I chose to do a Ph.D. because I wanted to be a role model for young ladies in STEM and my two kids,” Darko said.
“The secret to a successful career in science, engineering or math is to develop an interest in it and constantly work towards it,” Darko advises young women. “Remember that you were accepted to the program because of your qualifications and accomplishments, and you belong there. Do not let anyone intimidate you."
“My motto is, ‘Where there is a will, there is a way.’ With perseverance and hard work, you can achieve anything you want to achieve.”