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Female Tanzania nuclear physicist

  • It’s not war learning atomic science

I knew I was about to interview, Dr. Najat Kassim, one of the few women Tanzania Physicists, only to realize that she was an accomplished nuclear scientist.

And she must have sensed my admiration and surprise upon hearing that as many would equate the word nuclear with war, deaths and sufferings that instantly made me remember the 10,000-pound uranium bomb exploded above Hiroshima at 8:15am on August 6, 1945.

The bomb which led to an abrupt end to the World War II and obliterated the city, killing roughly 280,000 Japanese civilians three days after the first bombing, followed another powerful bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, about 400 kilometers away.

Scientists explain that nuclear bombs come into being after enriching a chemical element, uranium. Simply put, nuclear science is the study of the atomic world.

In Nuclear Science, the word nuclear means of or relating to or constituting the nucleus of an atom in their scientific jargon.

But, a nuclear scientist, Dr. Najat Kassim Mohammed says that there is nothing to worry, adding that Nuclear physics has a lot of positive applications and advantages for our livelihoods.

Explaining further, she says a gamma ray as a penetrating form of electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei is used to treat cancer patients in hospitals.

Nuclear medicine is used in detecting diseases. Gamma rays can also be used to preserve food. It is on record that Zanzibar has managed to eliminate tsetse flies by using gamma rays to castrate male flies and therefore make them unproductive.

As a heavy metal, uranium has been used as an abundant source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. Back to our scientus.

She was born on 17/4/1965 in Wete district in Pemba Island in Zanzibar where she received colonial education.

Her father, Mr. Kassim Mohammed Khamis was a civil servant working for Tanzania Postal and Telecommunication Corporation and East African Postal Corporation, while her mother, Maryam Said Ali, worked as a primary school teacher and later on as a secondary school teacher.

She grew up and schooled in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, and both parents encouraged the young Najat and her nine siblings to study hard. The parents did not discriminate girls when it came to education.

The five boys and five girls in the family were equally treated. During her time, it was compulsory to study science subjects in Zanzibar, and that helped the young Najat to start cultivating an interest in science stream early enough. She loved chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics.

She remembers one of her chemistry teacher, Mr. Abdallah Hamad, who was committed to see her prosper in the subjects.

"The tests he used to give me at Form One are still fresh in my mind. He was a very good teacher," she remembers.

One of her early role models was mama Narma Jidawi, who was a marine biologist. She joined the UDSM in 1992, taking physics, chemistry and education after completing her diploma course in 1990 at Nkrumah Teachers Training College in Zanzibar.

There were only 20 students in her class, and that helped lecturers to make close follow up on each student. There were only two female students studying physics.

Dr Najat, now working as a Deputy Principal Administration and Finance at Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT), confesses that she was naturally attracted to atomic and nuclear physics from the time she was in Form Six. "I loved the history part of it and experiments," she explains.

At the university, she loved quantum mechanics. Upon completion, she performed very well, and was approached by the late Prof C Kiwanga to join their nuclear physics lab at the university.

Since it was something she loved, she readily accepted the offer. She got a scholarship and commenced her Master degree in nuclear physics at the UDSM,where she performed extremely well and started to work at the same university in 2001, where she worked until 2018, teaching undergraduate, Masters and supervised PhD students.

Dr Najat was the first female academic staff to be employed in the department. She rose to become the first woman head of department of Physics from 2011 to 2018 since it was established in 1965.

She has done a lot of serious research studies, and one of them was establishment of baseline data for radioactivity and heavy metals to support best practice in uranium mining at Mkuju river basin in Southern Tanzania. She did this work in collaboration with a PhD student she was supervising.

Tanzania possesses known uranium deposits in Mkuju and Bahi district in Dodoma region.

In 2010, Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission (TAEC) introduced Dr Najat to a meeting in Vienna, Austria, which focused on matters related to nuclear security.

The meeting comprised of 25 members from universities around the world. Africa was represented by Dr. Najat and a Ghanaian.

The network formed at the meeting is interested to impart knowledge on nuclear security at certificate and Masters level in universities.

The curriculum is already developed. The next stage is to develop teaching materials, preparing Training of Trainers manuals among other preparations, she notes.

In a nutshell, nuclear security wants to make sure that safety, safeguard and security issues are adhered to when dealing with nuclear mining and applications in nations around the world. Wrong approach in teaching physics Dr Najat is not satisfied with the way physics is being taught in schools in Tanzania.

And to rectify the situation, Tanzania Physical Society (TPS), of which she is the President from 2018 is being supported by the United Kingdom (UK) based Institute of Physics (IOP) to run a project for best teaching approaches to physics teachers at form One and Two levels.

The three-year project called ‘Raising Enjoyment and Aspirations in Physics’ (REAP) that expects to end in 2021 is at pilot stage covering 12 secondary schools in Dar es Salaam.

The project emphasizes on proper methods of teaching and imparting right physics concepts to students.

"We are also conducting research during this period, with a view of advising the government later on the best way to teach the subject and hence attract more students," Dr Najat says.

According to her, Tanzania's physics syllabus is currently unnecessarily long, something that sometimes forces teachers to rush or cut it short. “Students don't get the beauty of the subject.

Physics should be interesting," Dr Najat explains, adding that it is not right to teach physics using mathematical expressions, saying students miss important concepts and lack practicals, ending up losing interest in the subject.

For example, she says some teachers would define density as mass per unit volume, or pressure as force per unit area.

According to her, the appropriate explanation should be that when teaching density, one has to relate it with mass, saying the best way is doing it practically by weighing different volumes of the same material and then weigh the mass of a unit volume, such as 1 cubic CM.

Her expression on the beauty of physics is echoed by Andrea Ghez, who is one of the three physicists who have won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for discoveries related to the most massive and mysterious objects in the universe black holes.

Talking to Nature Magazine, Ghez, only the fourth woman to win the physics Nobel said: "I hope I can inspire other young women into the field," adding that it is a field that has so many pleasures.

She says that nuclear education is crucially needed in the country, where she strongly feels that there is a reason to elevate awareness on the level of understanding on nuclear related matters in Tanzania.

She gives two examples to illustrate her point: One, nurses and medical doctors throughout the country need to clearly be aware of potential dangers of nuclear applications in hospitals when used haphazardly due to low level of professionalism or negligence.

Also, citizens in areas where uranium deposits are available near habitable areas as is the case of Bahi in Dodoma region should be taught how to protect their lives.

She says inhaling large concentration of uranium can cause lung cancer while its ingestion can cause kidney damage.

To tackle such challenges, Dr Najat and colleagues have started a group called 'Women in Nuclear', which will among other things sensitise different groups of people on various issues on nuclear safety. The group is working on its registration.

Advice to fellow scientists Dr Najat calls on fellow scientists to value the power of networking as well as helping upcoming girls and boys scientists.

She says a girl should be given an equal chance to forge ahead in education right from the family level, saying girls posses needed abilities to perform wonders.

Girls empowerment Dr Najat is working with Dr Margret Samiji, a physicist and Prof Eunice Mureithi from the Department of Physics and Department of Mathematics at the UDSM, respectively to run Science Camp for girls.

The camp that is supported by International Science Programme (IPP) of Uppsala University, Sweden, seeks to help girls from high schools in Dar es Salaam and other regions, who converge at the UDSM during holidays where they are taught theories and practical on topics that seem to challenge them most.

Close to 50 students from Dar es Salaam, Mbeya, Kagera and Iringa regions have so far benefitted from the project which started some four years ago.

“We are happy that most of those students perform well in their examinations," she says. A

s the world is heading to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Dr Najat calls upon young girls and boys to embrace science and technology and possess an entrepreneurial mindset to remain relevant.

  • Emmanuel Rubagumya writes about science, technology and innovation. Email: innovationstz@ gmail.com

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