The Root Of The Science Podcast

EP 125:Stephanie Okeyo, Science Communicator and Engager

September 18, 2023 Anne Chisa Season 4 Episode 125
The Root Of The Science Podcast
EP 125:Stephanie Okeyo, Science Communicator and Engager
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The guest today is Stephanie Okeyo, a microbiologist turned science communicator. Stephanie is originally from Kenya and currently living in Austria. Get ready to listen to the compelling journey of Stephanie in science communication, establishing Under the Microscope organization and her current quest of raising funds for her masters degree.

LinkedIn: Stephanie Okeyo
Twitter: @ajwangokeyo
 

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Anne Chisa:

The Root of the Science podcast with your girl, Anne with an E. Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the Root of the Science podcast with your girl, Anne E. If you are new here, welcome, welcome, welcome. It's always such a pleasure to have new guests on the show For the returning fans. Thank you so much for tuning in once again and, as always, remember to follow us on social media platforms Instagram, tiktok and Twitter, or follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn YouTube as well, using the name of the Route of the Science podcast. Make sure you also subscribe wherever you listen to a podcast so you are notified that a new episode is live. Remember that you can also suggest guests for me to talk to. You can do that by sending an email at the rootofthesciencepod@ gmail. com, or you can send a DM, because we would really love to chat to some really amazing people who are doing really amazing things.

Anne Chisa:

Speaking of which, let's get into today's episode. Today, we have a truly amazing guest. Her name is Stephanie Okeyo. She is from Kenya and currently based in Austria. Stephanie is a dynamic force in the world of science, communication and engagement. She is not only a student, but also the founder of Under the Microscope, an organization that is dedicated to advancing science and innovation infrastructure in Africa. Let's tune to this wonderful conversation. Let's go. Good morning, Stephanie. Welcome to the show.

Stephanie Okeyo:

Thank you, Chisa, for the invite.

Anne Chisa:

It is a pleasure to have you on. This interview is years in the making, but I'm so glad that we have finally found the perfect time to do it. I'm so happy to have you on the show.

Stephanie Okeyo:

I'm so glad to be here. We always say better late than never.

Anne Chisa:

Exactly exactly. So let's get things off started. We had a chat off air that we are officially in the same time zone. I'm in South Africa, you are in Austria, right?

Stephanie Okeyo:

Yeah.

Anne Chisa:

But you are originally from Kenya, so tell me how you ended up in Austria and what you're doing there.

Stephanie Okeyo:

I'm going to summarize this story because I wouldn't want to bore you so much. So I have a background in microbiology and then I founded an organization, a science communication organization, called Under the Microscope, and within that since 2019, I have been doing science communication and here, what brought me here in Vienna is a science communication fellowship at the International Institute for Systems Analysis. I know it's such a long new, but you could call it YASA. So I'm here for some science communication fellowship, which is a three months program whereby we are in charge of communication products and services for the research institute.

Anne Chisa:

That's amazing, and that was a very good summary. So well done. You're a great science communicator.

Stephanie Okeyo:

We hope, we think so.

Stephanie Okeyo:

Yeah, clearly the fellowship is working, but it's a great learning experience because I think sometimes what I'm seeing or learning is how we do science. Communication is not like a one heart fit all. How it's done in a research institute is different with how I do it in my organization, is different with how it will be done in an academic institution. So it's quite interesting just to see I'm coming from a space of a nonprofit and a youth led initiative to now a whole an institution that has been doing systems sense for over 50 years and they have a structure of how they do, or typically how research institutes do, communication. So I'm also learning a lot within the different dimensions in terms of house and communication. Even house and communication is perceived.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And also different target audience, because for us mostly has been the general public. That's a whole topic in itself because they're different categories and audiences and a general audience. But for in our institution, at the, currently our main target audience are policy makers. So that's also a different type of audience and new for me. It's a great learning experience and I think for any sense communicator, someone doing sense, communication or engagement work, would be good to just go to different sectors and see how it's done. It gives you a different lens.

Anne Chisa:

So that's so true. So during this time you've mentioned that you've learned that you know science, communication. The umbrella is very large right and there's many subheadings even under the subheadings. So so far, given the fact that you've been able to go from something, let's say, smaller and, like you said, you had a different audience with, with a general public, versus now you're working with policy makers has this kind of made you feel like this? It's given you a little bit of a sample of where you'd potentially like to go to, or you still trying to find where you'd like to go.

Stephanie Okeyo:

My friend I knew for me is different. I knew exactly where I wanted to be, which is generally. I wanted sense, to make sense for people, general public. Because at the end of the day, we do research for two purposes is either, first of all, to satisfy our curiosity and the second one is for the to improve people's lives and planetary health. So at the end of the day, if we are not doing that, we are failing as a scientific community.

Stephanie Okeyo:

So always at the end of the day, even if you look at how, if your audience is policy, it's always to affect still people. So for me, always my sons can. Whichever, wherever I end, it deals with people and that's why I will not. I see the relevance of policy more than ever because at the end of the day, majority of the work, if you see what we do between here and until it becomes or affects policy, is advocacy or education, but at the end of the day it needs to affect policy. So my audiences will change depending also with the product, with the context, I mean, and the project, but general audience for sure will always still be a target audience. I have very keen interest in me, but I do see also the vital importance of engagement, because, ultimately, they're the ones who make the decisions right.

Stephanie Okeyo:

No, and also academia. So students, I think it's also a group that we really live out.

Stephanie Okeyo:

So people in higher education who are just coming into the sense of research space they influence you with. That will be good because they influence somehow which research interest areas, their research interest areas, how they see research, how they approach research. Do they have a co participatory approach to it? So I think it's a field we never really think about students or people in higher education, but just early career researchers or scientists. It's also an area of interest because they are the ones who are coming into the pipeline or are in the pipeline but somewhere still far.

Anne Chisa:

Yeah, Speaking on your mission, which is doing science communication for people, you mentioned that you started your own organization. You are the founder of the microscope. Now you're doing your fellowship and you're potentially going to do your masters. So where is the intersection with all of these things and how do they all fit into the overall mission of what you want to do?

Stephanie Okeyo:

I always I'm going to give a shout out to this or whatever I'm going to say to my friend, because he always says you give all your story. And it goes back to why did I start science? Or why did I not start, sorry, but get into science? I think it was because I lost my parents, my mother due to poor diagnosis and I think at a young age of 13, I was like I want to be somewhere in health, you know, somewhere health related, but I do not want one with a lot of chemistry the irony.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And so I got into science, not because it only interested me or sparked interest, because I felt like it could make a difference, but when I got now really into it I felt like a big disconnect. When I was talking to my friends about at that time was doing an internship, the things we're doing at the research institute, and I could say, hmm, you know, they were like very surprised with some of the things we were talking about and even I'm going to be specific, it was about genital warts, which is a sexual transmitted disease in almost every person. Every sexually active person has had it in their life. So you see, just normal conversations that relate to the activities they today life. People really were interested but didn't have information about it. And then the other thing is that people didn't know what the research institute was doing or even it existed. So that started. I started realizing, okay, it's like having a Ferrari and putting it in a garage, not driving it, and what really actually kind of now give sparked it is when I started using YouTube by that time I was definitely in still in school and I see YouTube looking at lab techniques and I started seeing that I don't see any African sense educators doing any experiment, or none of the experiments were being done in an African institution, and I started feeling that information is not relatable to me, Just that fact. I think it's just natural. It's we what you don't see your country lead to, even if you already have a barrier in terms of its uptake. And I was going to myself that many people who graduate. We have many graduates. They are people, qualified, but I can't see any representation, particularly in the YouTube space, of the lab techniques or any sense education topics.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And when I got into this to do my internship, I was like I had an idea just at the back of my mind how it would be cool to share what we do. And when I went to Kigali, the next instance for this was in 2018. The next ancient forum, nef I saw the amazing work being done and I was like you know that idea stuff you had of sharing science, you really have to do it. So I put myself, I put a timeline for myself in and I said, in December 2018, I need to at least have started up. Log so under the microscope.

Stephanie Okeyo:

Originally started as a blog, a science blog, and then, within time, start realizing there is more that it will do and potentially carry and also bring people who are non scientists. That's another whole different category in itself that we've put for under the microscope and within this whole journey, what you realize is that you're always learning, like you're always learning. You think you know this, but just like the way society today being skinny is, the lifestyle of the in thing, tomorrow will be being heavy. So that is always changing and that's the same. How they take up science, scientific information, it's always changing. Before maybe we'll not have I'm not saying whether it's good or bad. Everybody has a, has the right to have their own opinion. But, like with the COVID, people have high have an opinion. That means they also have their own understanding in terms of when it comes to the world of vaccination, not only COVID, there's some people also who do not do any vaccination. When you look at GMO foods, there's some people who will never take any GMO product. That's why they're their whole food organic markets.

Stephanie Okeyo:

They're when you look at. Even so, they're different. So set is also changing how it's taking up scientific information, how it's questioning in it, how they feel they're contributing to its integrity. And with that, I feel, as a science communicator, I always need to be learning. That's why I also think, like this fellowship here in Austria and also my pursuit to do my undergraduate studies in in a master's degree in science, communication is vital for me. I feel I'm a lifelong student and that you only do it by doing it, which I have been doing through my organization, but also having an academic lens to it, because one of the major barriers in our space, even in terms of what you do, is that there is not so much research or evidence in our work, so it is really usually even hard to articulate its impact and also articulate the structures required to facilitate or strengthen it, because there's just no limited research.

Stephanie Okeyo:

So that's why I'm very keen in expanding into fellowships and also right now hopefully in October at Imperial London College to join my master's program in science communication.

Anne Chisa:

Amazing, steph, amazing. And let's talk about this potential of you going to study your science communication to further expand your skills, because you're clearly very passionate about what you want to do. So I know on social media you are currently fundraising or for it and we're going to attach the link in the show notes for that to help. But I just wanted to give you a moment to tell people why we should help you and what you hope to achieve after you've completed your master's program.

Stephanie Okeyo:

It's interesting how you put it, because when you're talking about it just made me realize this is also another stage of school of life for me, because I think some it's as I say, the main reason for me going to school is to learn and to see how I can mainly contribute within this space of science, education, science literacy, public science, engagement. You call it the many names.

Anne Chisa:

Yeah.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And when I got this, I had applied for a full scholarship, had applied for the chevening and the commonwealth by. I did not get it. And then at some point I also applied for the great award, which is done in collaboration with the university, universities and British Council, and I got it. And at some point it hit me that sometimes and I'm speaking to anyone who is applying for a higher education and you're waiting for that full scholarship or you're waiting for that perfect feet or moment to get started, and for me, when I got that great award, I was like you know what's? The window has opened, you should take up the chance.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And I was not even comfortable at first. I'm speaking, this is my personal preference or just my experience. I was not comfortable with the thought of even fundraising Because, just with my upbringing, asking sometimes is difficult. But one thing I realized is sometimes everyone needs support, everyone needs to ask for help. And this is my way of getting to that point in life saying I need to ask for help, I need help. And they always said the best journeys are not the easiest. So for me I do have. It's weird when things are really difficult I feel like there's something good at the end. I just need to hold on to it.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And it's not been easy. So I have opened a GoFundMe to fundraise at least for my tuition fee, because also going abroad to as an international student is also not easy. I'm sure some of your readers can completely, especially if you're self-funded in a way.

Stephanie Okeyo:

So I hope just people putting trust in me and seeing the purpose of why I'm going to school, because for me I feel it's more than my self-growth. It trickles down to my organization, what my organization. It trickles down to how also the projects we engage in, the other projects also I support and also the other people who hopefully are a mentor in the coming years. So I see this as an opportunity to have a trickle-down effect through an individual and I hope, with all the people who have supported me so far and hopefully will support me, see that and that's how for me is my contribution and I hope also at the end I do the same for someone else, because I'm understanding now this struggle, particularly with fundraising for education, and I think fundraising for education is a little bit hard because it doesn't have that much of an agency. So people who really put their money in this do believe in an individual.

Stephanie Okeyo:

Because, as you know, life is becoming a little bit difficult with many barriers, especially financially, so I do really appreciate anyone who puts in their money, whatever amount it is.

Anne Chisa:

No, steve, we really wish you all of the best and, like you said, sometimes it's important to say, hey, I need some help.

Anne Chisa:

And I think you kind of get taken away sometimes that your help could come from the one person or people who you'd have never expected, and sometimes strangers are the people who really, really help you. Not to minimize any of your circle or anything like that, but I think putting yourself out there and just saying, listen, I need some help and honestly, a little goes a long way. And I hope people are inspired and are motivated to help you in any big or small way that they can. And you are so deserving and you're so worthy with your mission and what you intend to do. And you've actually also been recognized as an ambassador for women's science and you have represented your country, kenya, at the United Nations, which is absolutely fantastic, and this obviously links with your passion again for doing with another passion of yours, rather, which is empowering young girls in the science space, and for advocating for gender equality. So you know this is such an important role and how do you approach this advocacy? Because I think this is also an extension of who you are.

Stephanie Okeyo:

First of all, thank you so much for those kind words. I really appreciate that. I think, when it comes to the aspect of gender equity equality in science and I'm going to say in science, and particularly still in education for me, because I think there are no women in science, if not all girls have access to basic education so when it comes to science, we also need to talk about education, which for some, in some context, that's not the reality for some people, be it that due to cultural reasons, just socioeconomic issues, or even with war related factors. So, as I say for me, my mother has always been an inspiration for me, so the aspect of a woman has always played a key part of who I've become.

Stephanie Okeyo:

And as time went by, when I started under the microscope and started going to spaces and trying to write about things, I realized I couldn't even five African female scientists I looked up to. I'm like, hmm, okay, I started seeing the gap within myself. First of all, I'm out to go in and all of this, but I can't really see women in these spaces. Just the same way, in YouTube, I couldn't see African science educators in this space. I couldn't really pinpoint the ones that I know of and I could say I'm really inspired.

Stephanie Okeyo:

You know there is a difference when you really know someone and when you know someone. I know of you at the same time. But I hope you get what I mean. No, get it. And I kind of realized you know what we're doing amazing stuff. But also women are not really highlighted in this space, and one part that I've even forgotten is I will not have started under the microscope if it wasn't for one woman who was ended up now being my supervisor and she said I don't know what you're doing, but I like it and she can.

Stephanie Okeyo:

She's happy to support me where she she can and she held my hand writing, she sends back recommendation letter and I think for anyone in whatever, and beyond events and communication, you need to start looking at who's your support system. So for me, women I have, and there are many more that I have not mentioned, but women have played a big role in building me up, and being in a space and not seeing women also showed me that there is a problem here or there is a gap or there's something that needs to be done. And the more you get into it and you interact with schools because I interact with schools, even in pastoral areas, in areas that still practice female genital mutilation you realize you're quite privileged, we are quite privileged. While we're speaking of more women, having more women in sense, and people are still not going to school beyond primary or high school. They're married off or due to other situations, many factors. So I have always been keen in terms of encouraging or creating support system, especially working with schools and in the schools, working with teachers and the teachers work with parents. I know it's such a long chain, but in a way, encourage all students to go to school first and then start having more. Showing more female scientists in these spaces, and even by just seeing me is still an example.

Stephanie Okeyo:

Sometimes you think you need to do something very fancy to impact, but you just need to relate it, and authentic is a whole other debate in itself. But just see, there is still some truth with you. Can't be what you can't see. That might be true for some people, especially for people still who need a lot of support and encouragement. So for me, supporting mentorship programs for schools that bring in and have a particular interest with girls girls or empowerment of girls in STEM careers is important. So supporting mentorship spaces has been important for me, highlighting in international spaces and regional spaces. African women's work has also been very keen for me in my work and in that way it's a drop in the ocean but I feel creates a space of more awareness, and that's how I approach advocacy in my work.

Anne Chisa:

Wow, yeah, I think you touched on something very important that you know you can't it's hard to buy for something that you can't see and that work is important not like even from an African perspective and I resonate with that and that's why I also do what I do and I'm glad that you do what you do, and this just further resonates the wonderful conversation that we've had, and we understand the genesis of why you do what you do, where you aspire to go to Steph, and it's been so amazing having you on and having you share your story, and I wish you all of the best in everything that you are going to do, because you are, I know you. If there's one person who can, I know it's you, so thank you so much for chatting with me today. It's been such a pleasure having you on.

Stephanie Okeyo:

Thank you so much, chisa, and it's amazing what you're doing here. As I said, it might, for some people in another level, seem micro, but also just giving a voice to different people with different passions is amazing, and I think one thing I would like to leave with anyone hearing me is it's also okay not to know what you want or what you're doing. When I started, I didn't even know. This is called Sans communication. So we live in a world that we always want to know things specifically, we are afraid of stepping in the unknown or we are afraid of falling or failing. So I think, whatever your passion is, in whatever field or even, it is okay not to know, but it is okay not to do something about it. You just need to try, the only way we can do. We live in a micro generation. You just have to do that's so true same.

Anne Chisa:

I didn't know what this was, I didn't even know it had a name. And you tend to see, like you said, that when you start you meet people who are doing the same thing and you get affirmed. You're like, oh my goodness, this is something that I can't do. And you hear other people's stories and they give you a roadmap and, yeah, I firmly believe, just start where you are. I think that is yeah, I know sometimes we can say it from a place of privilege, you know. But that risk aspect, like you said earlier, that sometimes it goes hard, it gets hard, but if you hold on, there's something good that can actually come out from this. And I firmly believe that is true that there might be hard times but something good is going to come out from it. It just requires the ability to endure.

Anne Chisa:

Sometimes yeah, I told about resilience but anyway, to everybody else who's tuned in, thank you so much for listening into another episode of the root of the sounds podcast with your girl and with an E. Until next time, goodbye.

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