In early January 2022 as part of a 5-day event Dr Asel Sartbaeva, Chemistry reader and Royal Society Research Fellow, conducted master classes for 300 schoolgirls in Bishkek, in her home country of Kyrgyzstan.
The "Girls in Science" project set up in 2020 by UNICEF was designed to empower 500 girls aged 14 to 18 from new settlements and rural areas, to excel in knowledge and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The classes were aimed at showing the girls that STEM subjects, including Chemistry, offer great professional opportunities for the next generation. The classes were held jointly with the project partners: the AUCA Innovation Technical College represented by Dr Madina Samakbayeva and Dr Bakhtiyar Asanov, and the Child Protection Center, which supported with girls’ participation. The master classes were set via the Zoom platform, with support of facilitators in the class.
The girls participating in the programme named Dr Asel Sartbaeva as their role model in pursuing science as a career path, so UNICEF appointed Dr Asel Sartbaeva as Ambassador of the “Girls in Science” programme.
Speaking about the classes, Asel said: "I was very happy to meet so many girls who are interested in the program. STEM subjects give an incredible foundation for their future professions, including critical thinking, problem solving, thinking outside the box, and higher self-esteem. The girls have actively participated in the activities and have asked many interesting questions. I hope they have gained an understanding that Chemistry is all around us, and it’s great choice as a profession. We asked the girls to reproduce the molecule at home, and I was excited to see pictures of the molecules that were made at home after the masterclass"
The girls who participated were also appreciative after the session. This is what they said: “It’s better to see or do once than to hear a hundred times”; “I really liked it. I’m grateful for this training. It was very interesting. This is my first time at such events, I feel incredibly comfortable. Thank you”; “I learned a lot, and I want to become a chemist”.
The importance of female role models
On her own inspiration, Asel reflected: "My mother was always my role model; she successfully built her career and independence despite many obstacles. She encouraged me to pursue my dreams and to believe that I could succeed, even though, when I went to study physical sciences at the Kyrgyz-Russian University in Bishkek, women were a very small minority and I was the only Kyrgyz woman on my course."
The only Kyrgyz female undergraduate on her course, she is a pioneer for women in Science and was named 'woman of the year', scooping the top prize at the FDM everywoman in Technology Award for 2021 for her ground-breaking invention of ensilication – a method for storing and transporting vaccines safely. Her technique protects vaccines from heat damage, so they can be safely stored and transported in all temperatures.
On what motivates her work, Asel said: “My dream is for every child around the globe to receive safe childhood vaccinations, to be protected from diseases, and to eliminate and eradicate as many diseases as possible [...] My team and I believe ensilication is a truly viable technique for making this possible.”
When she is not researching or teaching, Asel continues to actively work to attract more girls into STEM subjects, paving the way for future generations of women from all over the world to excel in these fields. "As far as I know, I was the first Kyrgyz to receive a PhD at Cambridge. I hope there will be more after me.”