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Clearing the Way for Girls' Education

Within her family’s traditional culture in Senegal, going to school “was basically banned,” says Aminata Ka (UWC-USA, Smith ’18). It was seen as an unacceptable legacy of the colonial era. “We would get an Islamic education, but that was it.” Encouraged by an uncle who had traveled outside Senegal, Aminata and a cousin were the first in their family, of either gender, to attend school at all.

Fast-forward to last June: Aminata was at Harvard College, helping present the results of her Smith research team’s investigation into how the genome of E. coli bacteria, a major cause of intestinal illness and child mortality in the developing world, reacts to changes in environmental conditions. Led by Professor Christine White-Ziegler, the team described its findings at the 23rd annual Boston Bacterial Meeting, which brought together over 500 area microbiology researchers.

“Providing insight and knowledge about the most direct therapeutic targets against E. coli is important — particularly to third world countries,” Prof. White-Ziegler notes.

After graduation, Aminata hopes to continue doing research for a year, then apply to medical school. Having volunteered for a time at a Senegal hospital for chemical-industry workers that also treated pregnant women, she saw the challenges that can face poor women who need care. She hopes to return one day as a gynecologist.

But still she struggles with family pressures to come back sooner, get married, and settle into homemaking.

“Going to school made me think I can be an independent woman, I can take care of my family,” Aminata says. “I can do something for the world, even if it’s a small change, like inciting more girls in Senegal to go to school, and their families to support them.”

That’s often far from easy, as Aminata knows well. But, she adds, “Now a lot of my cousins go to school.”