In focus: Dr. Donna Kean

Dr Donna Kean

International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM. Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the U.N. Agenda for Sustainable Development. That means closing the gender gap and getting more women working in these fields. Diversity in research expands the pool of talented researchers, bringing in fresh perspectives, talent and creativity.

According to UNESCO, less than 30% of researchers globally are women. While a growing number of women are enrolling in university, many opt out at the highest levels required for a research career. APOPO is dedicated to promoting women in all areas of our work, including the vital science that supports our life-saving rat detection research. Many skilled scientists and engineers have contributed to APOPO’s endeavor since it began as a research project more than 20 years ago. Today, our activities are driven by a number of very talented women.

We caught up with Dr. Donna Kean, Behavioral Research Scientist in an interview series to celebrate women in science at APOPO and hear more about her background and experiences.

What is your scientific background?

I studied Psychology at undergraduate level as I have always been interested in how our genes and environment interact to affect our behaviour. I became particularly interested in how evolution has shaped our behaviour, so I chose to go on to do a Master’s in Evolution and Human Behaviour. This is where I found my interest in animals, specifically in the similarities and differences in the behaviour of humans compared to other primates. I wanted to continue researching this topic, so I chose a PhD investigating cultural differences between humans and monkeys. This involved training monkeys (and attempting to train chimpanzees!) to use touchscreen computers. Enjoying this practical side of my PhD work ultimately led me to apply to work with APOPO. I wanted to do research that translated into real world benefits for people – the humanitarian work we do here at APOPO certainly ticks that box!

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I chose science because it is such a varied and rewarding field. Not only do you get to read and write about interesting, cutting-edge topics, but you also do very practical work when conducting experiments. On top of this, there is problem-solving, grant writing, presenting at and travelling to exciting places for conferences, and meeting lots of like-minded people. For someone like me that is curious and likes variation at work, science is a great choice.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

My mum was a scientist in the field of virology, and she is my greatest role model. She brought me up to be curious and question everything; to think about and test things systematically in everyday life.

One of my professors in biological anthropology, Matt Skinner, may not know it, but he also massively influenced my decision to stick with science. Matt was a great mentor, and his encouragement to go on to PhD level was the boost that helped me believe I was capable – sometimes a few words can go a long way.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am leading development of the Search and Rescue project at APOPO, where we are training the rats to find trapped survivors in collapsed buildings after natural disasters. For this, the rats are trained to locate people hidden amongst debris in a mock collapsed building site. They communicate that they have found a human to us by pulling a ball attached to the vests that they wear. They then return to where they were released from to receive a tasty treat. Their progress is very promising so far!

I also lead two other projects that are in the development stage: detecting the zoonotic disease brucellosis, and detecting soil contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons for environmental clean-up.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

Whilst working in science I have had a monkey eat my research notes, I’ve had chimpanzees throw poo at me (with absolutely no warning), and I’ve had rats surprise me by just how intelligent they are and how quickly they learn!

Do you come from an academic family?

My mum was a doctor of virology, but she was the only other member of our family to work in academia. However, lots of the women in my family are/were nurses, and I think it is underrated just how much academic type knowledge is required for that role.

How does your family feel about your career choice (and moving to Tanzania)?

It can be hard to live so far away from family, but they support me and are proud of the work I am doing. I think many members of my family are still bemused by the unusual career path I have chosen. Not many people train animals to save lives, and I think my job can still seem very weird and wonderful to them (and me!).

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system for it to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?

It remains clear that men are often promoted over women, even in the very female dominated field of psychology. You may see an equal gender balance in lower-level positions (in some fields), but men continue to dominate top roles. I think insidious and subtle gender biases continue to affect women in science, and these need to be confronted and challenged. The gender pay gap should also be proactively addressed to promote equality. When early career scientists see women truly being treated equally to men in the upper echelons of their field, I believe that this will encourage the advancement of women in science. Representation matters.

If you could give advice to young girls in STEM (or a younger version of yourself), what would that be?

Believe in yourself and the value you bring to the table. As long as you work hard and do your research, nothing can stop you.


Join APOPO today in celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science – may we see many more women and girls inspired to pursue STEM-related fields in higher education and careers!