Q & A with Dr. Connie Nshemereirwe

Many of us came to know of you through Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) and the Tuks Young Research Leader Programme (TYRLP). Who is Connie Nshemereirwe and how did you get involved with these initiatives?

A few months after receiving my Ph.D. I came across the call for the inaugural Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) back in 2015, and at the time I had been wondering how I was going to translate my knowledge and skills as this highly skilled researcher. The ASLP promised to enable me to clarify my vision to lead change as well as equip me with the skills to do so, and came right when I needed it.

The six-Day ASLP experience indeed delivered – more than I expected, in fact – I left with a very clear sense of purpose, and I have not looked back since. The experience would ultimately lead to me quitting academia and dedicating myself to doing more at the science and policy interface, as well as becoming more active in the science leadership movement in general. I took the opportunity first to act as a mentor in the ASLP and then as a trainer, and now as a member of the Steering Committee.

The ASLP was also directly responsible for my involvement in the Global Young Academy (GYA), which I was admitted to in 2016 and where I once again found an outlet for my growing science leadership capacity when I joined the Executive Committee in 2017, and later was elected as Co-Chair in 2018, a position I will hold until mid-2020.

As a young girl growing up in Uganda, your first career choice was civil engineering. You later changed careers and became an educator. Can you tell us about that journey?

Like many young and gifted children, I ended up in Engineering by accident rather than choice. Three years after graduating from my Bachelor I wandered into a part-time teaching position in the Faculty of the Built Environment at a small rural private university. Teaching, and the research that accompanied preparing my classes, was a big breath of fresh air, after the rather stressful and murky world of Building Construction. Within a year I was convinced that academia suited me much better than the building construction industry, but especially that I wanted to dig deeper into the theory and practice of education itself, so I decided to enroll in a Master of Educational & Training Systems Design. This later led to a Ph.D. in Educational Measurement specifically, where I was interested in the relationship between the inputs in our education system, such as teachers and school resources, and student achievement as measured by national examinations, and how this eventually prepared them for university education. My interest in Educational Quality has now broadened to the entire educational pipeline, from the pre-primary to the post-university stages, and also touches on investigating the philosophy underlying our educational system, as well as evaluating the fitness of our formal curriculum for our current purposes.

You have been instrumental in building the now sought after, Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) and the Tuks Young Research Leader Programme (TYRLP). Tell us about that journey, how did it begin?

Being involved in the development of the ASLP and the TYRLP as we know it now has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. As a member of an active and committed Steering Committee, however, I must say this has been shared labor of love. One of my main roles besides that of facilitation has been following up on the fellows during their fellowship year and giving feedback to the Steering Committee to continuously adjust the programme so that we can be more responsive to the needs of the fellows. This process is also helping to better integrate ways of tackling the many challenges identified by the various cohorts of Early Career Scientists.

What is your dream for the programs that you have helped to grow to where they are now? 

One of the more exciting developments has been to build on the TYRLP model to create shorter and more targeted regional Science Leadership Programmes (SLPs), where we work with our former fellows to bring the SLP closer to the many early career researchers that apply every year but are unable to attend the flagship six-Day programme. The response to this has been very positive, and after completing the Western and Eastern Africa editions in 2019, we hope to carry out the Northern and Southern Africa editions in 2020. This is part of the wider capacity development of our fellows to ultimately be the conduit by which the programme can spread across Africa.

 How do we ensure that more people are exposed to these kinds of training?

Building a strong community among our fellows, and creating opportunities for them to grow their capacity to conduct similar pieces of training is one of the main ways in which I see this greater exposure happening. The programme rests on some core design principles, which are easily taught, but the skill required to facilitate a workshop to have the desired effect on participants takes some time to develop. I believe the regional SLPs, however, are creating the right kinds of champions to accomplish this. Someone also recently suggested targeting the universities where the hundreds of unsuccessful applicants are based as they might be able to partner with us to expand the delivery.

What is the next phase for Connie?

That is a good question. I must admit that by now I do not make long-term plans. What has happened is that the best opportunities have presented themselves when I least expected them, so mine now is to picture what I would like to be different about the world and the opportunities appear. To that end, I expect that I will continue to be involved in the Science Leadership movement in general because the demand is still great, but I do not know the form it will take. What I would like is that I move a little more from the global and continental scope that my activities have had in the last few years to connect to more local initiatives in Uganda. This was always the driving force behind changing careers to education, pursuing a Ph.D. in education, and now expanding my interest from just the post-secondary to the entire pipeline of our education system.

With that said, the actual how remains a mystery.

What is your message to young people who are the next crop of African research leaders?

My main message is that as highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals in your societies, you have an inherent leadership role – you are much more capable of driving change than you realize, especially if you connect to the other highly skilled and motivated young scientists across the continent. We all face very similar conditions and we shall be much more effective if we address them together – this is the idea of collective leadership that is at the core of the ASLP.