When Dr. Berger told the story of Sediba and the discovery to the world, the press rushed to profile Matthew. He added a charming human interest angle to the science. But, as I learned at the Berger’s home, there is another important science story in the family. Megan is in 9th grade and after winning gold in a regional science competion, triumphed in the nationals and is now on to the international competition. Not surprising, perhaps, since her mother is a radiologist (she does the CT scans which allow us to see fossils and then model fossils even while they are still embedded in blocks of stone — thus meaning we do not need to damage the relics in any way in order to hack them out and study them), and, well, her dad is her dad. But if we go beyond the culture of one family, there is something striking about how women and science are viewed in South Africa, and more broadly in many parts of the continent.
As Dr. Berger told me, there are more and more prizes and competitions for women in science, and nation after nation focuses on training girls to enter the sciences. I have often expressed my frustration about the way we treat math in America — as if it were gendered — but Dr. Berger rushed to say that issue is misleading. The focus on women in science is not inherently about math. You can, he stressed, be OK in math and great in science. The problem is that all too often we lump them together and treat both as somehow male. But not in Africa.
Wouldn’t it be neat for some of our schools to spend a day — in a science class — profiling the accomplishments of African girls and women in science today — the prizes and awards they are winning. People endlessly talk about role models — but here is one that could show girls in our schools, in particular African American girls, a path wide open to them. We can learn from the Africans — by honoring girls and women, like Megan, who are testing ideas, creating experiments, and arriving at new conclusions — in the lab.