Community Post: The Invisible Threads that sustained me in STEM/Tech

The unconscious influence the Ghanaian tech community has had on my career.

My name is Joana Owusu-Appiah, and I am currently pursuing an MSc degree in Medical Imaging and Applications. I am originally from Ghana, but as my colleague likes to put it, I am currently backpacking through Europe. So depending on when you see this, my location might have changed.

I hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana. Prior to commencing my graduate studies, I dabbled in data science and analytics, gaining experience in visualizing and manipulating data using various tools (Python, Power BI, Excel, SQL). My current research focuses on computer vision applications on medical images.

Do I consider myself a woman in tech? I guess if it means knowing how to use a computer (lol) and understanding that photo editing is based on image processing algorithms and deep learning, then I might be close.

Has it always been this way? No.

What changed

I am a first-generation university student. In my country, or how it used to be, growing up, the smarter students were encouraged to pursue General Science in high school because it ultimately ensured job security. In high school, my primary ambition was to attend medical school. However, as a backup plan, I stumbled upon Biomedical Engineering (BME), which fascinated me with its potential. It quickly became my secondary option. Interestingly, everyone I spoke to knew nothing about it. Guess who would jump at any opportunity to give a lecture about this mystery degree? Me!

Side note: My high school biology teacher mentioned that neurons (nerve cells), once damaged, could never be repaired, but he also said that they functioned like wires. I thought to myself, if I merged this pathological accident and the BME I had read about, then I could replace damaged nerves with wires (some day). I ran with this new, uninformed career goal.

Fun fact: I didn't get into medical school, but I did get into the BME program. I quickly realised that technical drawing (a requisite course for all engineering freshers) was definitely not going to equip me to fix Neurons, and that the only viable role for BM E graduates in my country was clinical engineering (maintenance and installation of medical equipment - or so I thought). Clinical engineering wasn’t something I wanted to try, so I needed an escape!

Programming looked interesting, but also difficult and meant for very smart people. However, I gave it a shot during covid. PyLadies Ghana was organising a data science boot camp, and I decided to try.

[Heads up: My undergraduate degree had programming courses like Introduction to C and Object-Oriented Programming with Java( I had collaborated with people on some projects then), but for some reason, I couldn't get my brain to enjoy it…]

The Real Reason you’re here

During the boot camp, some of the participants were absorbed into the national online community of Python Ghana because more resources and opportunities were being shared there. It turned out:  I was looking for an escape without any destination. Members of the community seemed very vibrant; there was always a job opening up for grabs, a new free online course or banter on trendy tech topics. My main struggle was finding a niche to belong; what was in tech for me?

My interest in health never waned, so you would usually see me reposting information on female health, breast cancer, etc. The PyLadies Ghana Lead, at that time, Abigail Mesrenyame Dogbe noticed it and in October (Breast Cancer Awareness month) she tasked me to help organise a session for the members of PyLadies Ghana. I moderated the session and it was very successful. My very first visible interaction with the community!

Abigail asked if I wanted to keep contributing to the Communications team( the comms team is the main organising force of PyLadies Ghana ) or default to being just a member. I opted for the former. In my eyes, this was a big deal; being asked to stay on the team meant a ton, It was a validation of a certain value I had to offer. I made mistakes, I created terrible designs, and I missed deadlines, but I also learned a lot. I learned how to use tools like Canva, schedule virtual calls,  MS Office tools (Excel, Docs), write official emails, organise events, etc. I was helping with social media engagements, and I didn't even have a vibrant social media presence. I was recommended to help with Public Relations (PR) and social media for a connected tech community(Ghana Data Science Summit-IndabaX Ghana) that organises annual data science conferences.

Two years later, I got the opportunity to mentor ladies in the very bootcamp that led me into the community. The ripple effects of my involvement with PyLadies Ghana are diverse, ranging from giving a lightning talk to speaking to young girls about STEM, to helping organise Django Girls at PyCon Ghana 2022, and more…

STEM outreach for teenage girls on International Women's Day 2023

Unknown to everyone, I had contemplated brushing the study of data science under the carpet as a ‘failed project’ and moving on to something else. Staying committed to the community, watching the members, and participating in events encouraged me to keep trying. I attended conferences, met and saw women who had achieved great things in data science and machine learning, which meant that I could also, through their stories, find a plan to help me get close to what they had done.

I was always fascinated by their work conversations because wow, these women work in tech?! Some community members had secured scholarships and were pursuing higher STEM degrees abroad while others worked for top tech companies.

After covid, my plan for life after school was to either hone my programming skills and get a good job in a Ghanaian tech company and/or find graduate programs that would enable me to work on my Neurons(of course I had developed other interests). I got into a specialised data science and analytics fellowship with Blossom Academy (more about the training here), landed my first tech role through it, and later began my master’s degree.

The Intro slide of the Data science bootcamp I mentored at!

The threads that sustained me in tech were the people, the conversations, and the inclusive atmosphere the Ghanaian community created for people with different personalities to thrive. My journey in STEM can be traced back to that pivotal moment in 2020 when I was offered the opportunity to belong and I seized it!

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