Cutting a path for Pakistani children to pursue a scientific career

Lala Rukh launched Science Fuse to inspire girls in Pakistan to pursue science education and careers.Credit: Faseeh Shams

Lala Rukh is a scientific communicator and founder of Science Fuse, a non-governmental organization in Lahore, Pakistan, that works to promote access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Launched in 2016, Science Fuse designs and provides non-formal educational seminars, trainings and resources that build children’s scientific literacy and passion for STEM. It uses a model of sliding costs to engage with schools that serve children from different socio-economic backgrounds, including the use of donations to conduct free scientific demonstrations for the poorest communities. Ruch talks about his motives for founding Science Fuse.

When did you first become interested in science and engagement with science?

My interest in science began when I was 12, after reading an article about personalized medicine in a children’s magazine published by a leading newspaper in Pakistan. I was fascinated by this idea and cut out the article and glued it to my bed so I could see it every morning when I woke up.

In 2003, I returned to Norway, where I was born, and studied molecular biology and biotechnology at university. But I realized that I don’t like doing science in the lab as much as engaging people in science. So, I joined Forskerfabrikken, an Oslo-based non-profit organization that encourages children to pursue science. We organized practical research programs for students. I worked there for five years as a scientific communicator and learned about my involvement in science and social entrepreneurship. I discovered the main characteristics that create great small school exhibits, and saw how the organization created revenue streams and structures to expand its team and experience in Norway. And I realized that scientific communication is where my passion really lies.

Where did the idea for Science Fuse come from?

In the summer of 2013, when I was in Pakistan to get married, I visited a small charity school for children living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Karachi. I did a 3-hour science seminar for kids with fun demonstrations, from creating giant bubbles to making beads that change color in the sun and chemical reactions that make water “burst.” There were big smiles on the children’s faces, and the experiments piqued their curiosity. It made more sense for me to do this kind of work in Pakistan. Since 2016, Science Fuse has reached more than 45,000 children, trained 650 teachers and fostered a community of more than 200 scientific communicators. We have worked closely with about 250 schools and partner organizations to provide world-class scientific education across the country.

Why is it important to promote STEM education in Pakistan?

In Pakistan, 44% of children do not go to school, one of the highest in the world – and the majority of those who go to school attend private or public low-income schools. Many low-income families do not have access to quality STEM education.

This is a matter of social justice. STEM skills are important for any job and children need them to stand out. Science allows us to ask questions about life and the universe. But in Pakistan, many people, especially children and especially girls, are not encouraged to ask questions at home and in schools because of cultural and religious beliefs. It is important to use STEM education to empower children.

Next to each other a composition of remarkable women in STEM posters

Science Fuse creates posters depicting Pakistani women in science to break stereotypes and encourage children to follow their passion for science.Credit: Sana Nasir, Maria Riaz and Sana Kirmani / Science Fuse

What are some other barriers that prevent girls who want to study STEM subjects and pursue a STEM career?

There are many social biases, including cultural stereotypes, that keep girls away from STEM in Pakistan. Unfortunately, many parents and girls believe the stereotype that boys are better at science because they see STEM as male-dominated. Parents also want their daughters to get married – they fear that if their daughters study science, they will end up unmarried. A 2016 study by the British Council, a London-based cultural and educational exchange organization, surveyed more than 2,000 girls in Pakistan and found that they believed their male counterparts were more intelligent and naturally gifted in science. So, if a certain gender thinks they are not good enough to study STEM, it is difficult for them to pursue a STEM career.

We need to change the thinking of people, including girls, politicians, parents and communities. We receive support from the Malala Fund, a Washington-based organization that lowers barriers to girls’ education, founded by Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Malala Yousafzai to design science books and posters depicting women scientists. They include Pakistani scientists such as Nergis Mawalwala, an astrophysicist who grew up in Karachi and part of the team that first discovered gravitational waves, and Tasnim Zehra Hussein, the first Pakistani woman to have a doctorate in string theory. These posters are especially important for girls because “if they can see it, they can be it.” We want young girls and boys in Pakistan to grow up reading stories about amazing women scientists who have changed the world with their hard work, wisdom and determination.

What do you find most interesting when teaching children science?

Curiosity! Whenever I do scientific experiments with children, I see their eyes light up with a great sense of wonder, and they ask amazing questions about how the universe works and many other things. It gives me a lot of joy that I can’t describe. This is what I love.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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