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Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Inspiration from young Fossey scientists

At the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, we are proud to have been founded by a pioneering woman scientist – Dian Fossey – and to continue the tradition of supporting women in science throughout our 56-year history.  

We are especially committed to providing science and conservation-related research and career opportunities to young women who are starting out in their careers. This includes a wide range of programs, from field work for local college students to professional internships and research assistant positions. Here is a look at some of our newest aspiring young women who are now well on the way toward becoming important scientists of the future:

Research assistants Joyce Uwineza and Annick Mushonganono

Joyce and Annick are each in the field with the gorillas four days per week, collecting data on their behavior patterns, demography, dietary preferences, and even gathering fecal samples, which are analyzed to extract information on things like stress physiology and genetics.

Joyce was drawn to science at an early age, with her initial interest being in health care to help both people and animals. While at the University of Rwanda she decided to pursue zoology and conservation as a major, which led her to a field study with the Fossey Fund. Here she became fascinated with the work of Dian Fossey and decided she wanted to do similar work in gorilla conservation, leading to being hired as a research assistant with us last year.

Research assistant Joyce
Research assistant Annick

“My goal as a woman in conservation is to advocate for women doing conservation work,” she says. “I strive to be an example to other women, to showcase what women are able to accomplish through conservation and to encourage women to share information about their successes and challenges so other generations can learn from them.”

Annick’s early interest in the sciences led her to study mathematics, chemistry and biology in high school and to major in zoology and conservation in college at the University of Rwanda. Now as a research assistant, she’s especially interested in studying the similarities between gorilla and human behavior. 

Throughout her studies, Annick also made time to study and practice public speaking skills, so that she would be able to share her knowledge with others. This has come in handy, because now when Annick is not in the field with the gorillas, she helps educate visitors at our Ellen DeGeneres campus by giving guided tours and explaining how gorilla research and conservation are conducted.

“My hope for the future is to be able to use my passion about public speaking and call upon girls and women to join my line of work,” Annick says. “I wish for gorillas to grow in their natural habitat and for my work and voice as a woman in science to contribute to their conservation.”

Professional interns Yvette, Assoumpta and Salima

Our professional interns at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund are generally experiencing their first formal work opportunity, having just completed their university studies. Recently, we welcomed Salima Niyigena, Yvette Kagabirwa and Assoumpta Shenge Kabeho, as they transition from their studies of science to their professional lives. These women are also supported by our partnership with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which provides support to Rwandan undergraduates in their last year of university to conduct research with the Fossey Fund and then also have the opportunity to get hands-on job training through internships. 

Interns Salima (left) and Assoumpta
Intern Yvette

Yvette was among the hundreds of university students in Rwanda who have done their senior bachelor’s degree research projects with us. Her research involved studying the skeletons of endangered golden monkeys, the only other primate living in the gorilla forest in Rwanda, focusing on what can be learned from these bones, especially pathologies. Now, as an intern, she also gets to assist with the Fossey’s Fund’s large mountain gorilla skeletal collection, which is an important resource for learning about the gorillas.

“Being one of the few women in my country who do the scientific work l do, I am determined to further my education in primate pathology and inspire other women to see that they can be scientists as well as contribute to conservation,” says Yvette. “Girls and women need to know that the scientific field is in reach for them, and connect with women who are changing the narrative like so many women scientists I have worked with at the Fossey Fund.”

Salima also completed her senior bachelor’s project with the Fossey Fund, and researched the diets and eating behaviors of golden monkeys. Now working in our biodiversity program, she says she really enjoys learning how to use all the technological equipment involved in these studies, such as remote cameras and acoustic monitoring devices, as well as the software that goes with them. “It makes me feel joyful to be among the few women who possess such refined field research knowledge and skills,” she says.

“I aspire to contribute to the continuation of the scientific research that the Fossey Fund does, emphasizing that women are capable of contributing to gorilla conservation. I further want to be a voice for gorilla conservation through policy advocacy, communicating to different audiences the importance of wildlife conservation, and calling on people to join this work,” says Salima.

Intern Assoumpta is also working in our biodiversity program, enjoying tasks ranging from bird monitoring to large mammal and amphibian surveys to plant measuring, as well as interacting with visitors on our Ellen DeGeneres campus.

“My message to girls and women is that they need to believe in their capabilities,” she says. “They also need to network with people who are in science and who are conservation-oriented to be able to reach their goals. Do not be shy to ask for help, guidance, and/or mentorship, as that will likely tie to being inspired and supported,” says Assoumpta to all young women aspiring to be scientists.