PHNOM PENH —
[Editor’s note: Geraldine Richmond, the US Science Envoy to Southeast Asia, has over 40 years experience as a scientist, researcher and teacher. In a recent talk at the second annual Science and Engineer Festival in Cambodia, Richmond shared her experiences with high school students, encouraging them to take courses in science. This was Richmond’s third visit to Cambodia. In an interview with VOA Khmer, she said she has noticed a stronger commitment on the part of the government to better promote the learning of science, especially for young girls. Experts say Cambodia must do better in science, technology, engineering and math if it is to succeed in a more integrated region, where competition for jobs will be much stronger.]
What is your impression of the science field in Cambodia? How has it improved since your last visit?
Well, I don’t know that I have seen an improvement, because it’s all happened in the last year. But what I have seen is a true commitment to science education in Cambodia, from the highest level, and the appreciation that it is a new day for Cambodia. So I am very optimistic about what I see, that the young people have decided that they are in a technical field, science, engineering, as well as the increased number of teachers that are committed to being up to date on what they teach.
You run an organization, called COACH, for women scientists and engineers. Why do you encourage women to study in this field?
I believe that the best science and best discovery comes when you have many voices during creation and during discovery. And if we only have men doing science, we won’t have a creative product. So we have many examples where a product was created by men that didn’t work for women. We have to make sure that women are in the creative process also. I think it is really important.
For a developing country like Cambodia that doesn’t have many people studying science, how do you encourage women to do so?
I think the most important thing, even when I was young, was it gets you a job. I believe the reason you get education is so you can get a job. And there are many job opportunities if you are skilled in a technical field. In many countries we know that a family cannot exist with only one income, on just a man income, that you actually often need two incomes. And so by women also being trained, it allows them to provide for their family. I also think that women tend to be very hard working, particularly in Cambodia. Some of the best students in science and engineering are women. So we’ve got to make sure that they can have a productive career while they also have children. Because we don’t want to make them think that they can’t have children if they take on a science career. It is very important for Cambodia to encourage women to do science and to figure out ways that they can have children and have a science career also.
There are many students from developing countries who go to study these subjects abroad and work there because there are not many job availabilities in their country. How do you encourage them to come back?
You know what happened to a number of countries, from my perspective, that have been at one point at the same place as Cambodia, is that those people left but they have also wanted to come back. So they come back maybe 10 or 15 years later. But even more important, there is a term called diaspora. And that is people that go, for example, Cambodians go to the United States, and get trained, and then stay in the United States and work. And those are the communities in the United States that we are trying to get to help. In Cambodia, they don’t have to go back and get a job, but to come back and help train, to come back and help in policy decisions, to provide advice. And so even if they stay in the United States, there are many that want to stay connected. What the United States is trying to do is to couple with the diaspora to help them go back and help their country. That may not mean that they are employed there, but maybe they are able to start up a company in Cambodia. You know they maybe already have a start-up company in the United States, so they can expand in Cambodia. So there is a whole new model for how you use science and how you get employed these days because you can start a company in your country. I think that is an exciting model that wasn’t there before.
You have mentioned in your talk that “Cambodia is in the time of change.” What is your suggestion to make sure that we are moving on the right direction?
Well I think the most important for Cambodia is to commit to strong science teaching, what we call K through 12, the primary and secondary schools. And I think right now there are some examples of that, where schools are good in science and engineering. But there aren’t enough. And being able to train teachers to feel comfortable teaching science and engineering, I think that is most important. That is number one. And number two is the university level. The government has to allow their faculty to do research and teach. And right now many of the faculties at the universities, they are so busy teaching that they can’t do research. And yet research is how we actually train the next generation of scientists. And we also make discoveries. So in many countries in this region, the governments say we are going to have a faculty make these inventions. But if they don’t have the time because they are so busy teaching, it’s very hard. So I would like to see the aspiration match the reality. And decide who are your really good teacher and faculty and allow them to keep time to teach other teachers, and to also do discovery. So it may mean moving around some of the priorities at the universities and at schools.