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Two ALA Students win STEM Competition at Annual Derby Day Event

Each year, students from a group of schools across Southern Africa come together for Derby Day, an activity-filled day comprising a range of sports and academic challenges. This year’s event was hosted at Maru-a-Pula School in Botswana, where, early this month, two ALA students walked away with both first and second prizes in the STEM competition. 

Michael Jembe Bongo and Skylar Grace Montague

Fifteen different students took part in the competition, representing four schools from two countries. Out of those fifteen, Kenyan Michael Jembe Bongo ’18 came in 1st place with his “Co-Production of Energy from Wind and Solar” presentation, and Moroccan, Skylar Grace Montague Redecke ’18, won 2nd place with her presentation titled “Antibacterial Effects of Garlic“.

Both Skylar and Michael are second-year students and members of ALA’s Science Research course. This elective course provides accepted students with opportunities to conduct research on practical topics in a science, engineering, or technological field of their own interest. Each student sought to apply concepts to their research projects that they had learned in their other STEM-based classes at ALA. Michael wanted to apply the Physics concepts that he had been learning, while Skylar says that the Science Research class, “seemed like the perfect opportunity to put to practice everything I had been learning in my Chemistry and Biology classes.” She continues, “I also hope to do science research in the future, and this seemed like the perfect stepping stone to learn more about lab procedures and research papers.”

By allowing students the freedom to take their research in a direction of their choosing, the course pushes ALA’s young leaders to be more autodidactic while inspiring student passion for STEM and for self-exploration, particularly within the African context. Both students’ competition presentations highlights just how successful the class has been in accomplishing this aim. 

Michael Bongo is an aspiring engineer and entrepreneur. He says, “I view these two as complementary skills, entrepreneurship as the heart or the ability to identify real needs in society, and engineering as the brain or skillset to build solutions to these problems.” For his research project, he wanted to create as much of a positive impact as possible. Michael hails from Mombasa, Kenya, where he says steady sunshine and very strong winds are common, but blackouts are also not unusual in the area, some lasting nearly two weeks. Now that he has researched the viability of combining wind and solar energy production and shared his presentation at the STEM competition, Michael is optimistic that the success of his research will bring sustainable and affordable electricity to his hometown, as well as other areas with a similar combination of wind and sunlight. 

Skylar’s research explores the use of natural alternatives to antibiotics, since antibiotic resistance is becoming more common. This was inspired by her home community at ALA. She states, “the reality is that bacterial spread around the ALA campus is extremely prevalent because students are living in such close quarters and [biometric security access] finger scanners around campus act as the perfect breeding site for bacteria.” Skylar chose to focus her research on garlic because of how easily it is found in most parts of the world, investigating how one can extract natural compounds from garlic and use them to produce an all-natural hand sanitizer that would inhibit bacterial growth. As one of only two females in the entire competition, Skylar says that presenting her research was an especially nerve-wracking experience, but she felt empowered by how much time and effort she had put into the project. After she graduates from ALA, Skylar will be continuing to pursue her passion for science at Duke University, where she plans to study Biomedical Science and Genomics. 

Both Michael and Skylar are grateful for the chance to take part in the Derby Day STEM competition, thanking the teachers that supported them and sharing that they learned a lot from the experience. As Michael says, “participating and winning the STEM competition was confirmation to me that the problem I am trying to solve is indeed valid and significant to the continent.” Skylar echoes his sentiments, calling the win, “a boost of confidence and morale knowing that other people believe in the vision I’ve been working towards.” However, she also had an additional point to add, sharing, “[a] key takeaway is that in the specific field that I want to pursue… there is a wide gender gap. At times, it can be extremely intimidating because few people actually believe that women belong in the STEM field. However, I now know that even if my gender is a minority in the STEM field, it cannot stop me from pursuing what I am passionate about.”

Congratulations Michael and Skylar!

If you know of young leaders like Michael and Skylar and would like them to apply to ALA, nominate them today.