Marie Grace Umumararungu, 34, is an engineer with deep experience and expertise in hydraulics structures, design of flood hydrology, analysis and design of water distribution systems and construction of road, works in Rwanda for Bridges to Prosperity, building footbridges as solution to rural isolation. She received her Civil Engineering and Environmental Technology Bachelor degree from University of Rwanda, College of Science and Technology, formerly Kigali Institute of Science and Technology in 2012. After two years of engineering practice, she continued her education at University of Stellenbosch in South Africa where she received her Masters of Engineering in 2016. She is an active member of Rwanda Association of Women in Science and Engineering (RAWISE) which is encouraging more Rwandan women to pick interest in and join science and engineering fields. She is also a member of the Organization for Women in Science for the developing world with the objective of strengthening the role of women scientists from the developing and developed worlds in the development process and promoting their representation in scientific and technology leadership.
Why did you get into STEM?
I went into Civil engineering by chance – it was random! During my 3-year lower secondary, I was very good in math and the sciences. My teachers and family advised me to choose science for high school, and it opened the door to the STEM field. It was beneficial for me because the government was promoting STEM. Therefore, the best student upon graduating from high school would get a scholarship to a public university in Rwanda. After, my high school education, I accepted my offer to Civil Engineering at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. At that time, I did not understand what civil engineering was about! I first encountered civil engineering during work experience with a local firm in September 2010. Whilst there, I was inspired by the opportunity to apply my existing skills to real-life problems, and as a result I decided to participate in the Engineering Scheme. As I was beginning to appreciate the diversity that Civil Engineering offers, I chose to continue my studies in engineering. This contributed to me thinking analytically and creatively and this involves insight solution on modern life as almost wholly dependent on engineering.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
I have achieved a few things in my life, in academia, engineering and others. Here are just a few things that are worth mentioning here:
• I was forced to be an adult at age 11 because I was the first born in my family. I was supposed to look after my two little sisters and I am gratified that I was their role model, and they became the adorable wives and best mothers they are now.
• I received an award from the Mwalimu Nyerere African Union Scholarship Scheme and I moved to South Africa. I got admitted for a Masters of Engineering at Stellenbosch University, the third best university in Africa. There, I learned a lot about physical and numerical modelling analysis and how to do hard-core scientific research. After graduation, I decided that it was time to follow my passion. I decided to take a few years off to enjoy life,and got married to my lovely husband.
• Graduating with a Masters of Engineering is like literally breaking my own records even if I choose to continue to get my Phd. Many thanks to Engineering!
Today, I have no regrets – engineering made me who I am today. Engineering helped me with my critical thinking skills and my ability to analyze problems or challenges starting from basic fundamentals. I have also developed my ability to manage my emotions and feelings notwithstanding to use simple mathematics and to let data and facts lead me.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
The first challenges were that I had few female friends. STEM is still predominantly male-populated. At first, I tried to figure out how to be a woman in a man’s world and to be accepted as one who is able. This did not work. Then after, I joined RAWISE which gives women in STEM some visibility. This helped me to succeed in the STEM field.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
I recommend women to:
• Find their passion. They will be successful in their field as long as you have a real passion for it. Don’t hesitate to interact with the STEM field.
• Be open – open to new ideas and open to change.
• Plan, but be available. You want to have a career plan but sometimes an opportunity will come. An opportunity that you didn’t expect and hadn’t considered. When that opportunity comes, grab it!
• Use the skill sets and tools that STEM gives you to analyze complex problems and come up with logical solutions in any field, whether it is finance, sociology, management, entrepreneurship etc.
• Seriously girls, if you are going to pay for college today, it better be in the STEM field. Otherwise, be extremely careful and make sure your money is well worth it. I have no regrets! Given a chance, I would do STEM all over again. Although, this time, I would do engineering. Moreover, I’m truly excited about STEM career opportunities for women because we haven’t reached the maximum impact STEM will have in the future. It’s ours to decide!