Chairman of the ANSA McAL Foundation Andrew Sabga speaks with laureate Dr Shirin Haque after she received her award for Science and Technology at the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence at Tatil Building, Maraval Road, on Friday.

Anna-Lisa Paul

As the only professional astronomer in the Caribbean, Dr Shirin Haque has been described as a pioneer in her chosen field of which there are approximately only 13,000 in the world.

Selected as the 2020 laureate of the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence in the area of Science and Technology, Haque received her award from President Paula-Mae Weekes on Friday, with a broad smile behind her face mask and a message that it is possible to achieve your dreams.

In brief remarks, Haque addressed the small gathering with the traditional Vulcan greeting of “Live long and prosper”, with her fingers parted in the middle adopted from the Star Trek movie.

Sharing early memories of being seven years old and not having gone to school yet, to being told that astronomy was not a viable career, the outspoken Haque revealed just how prestigious the global movement of astronomers is and that of the 13,000 members, less than 20 per cent are women.

President Weekes confided that her office had been “stalking” Haque as they monitored her work in the field and hoped to feature her in a forthcoming initiative to highlight the work of women in science.

A senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, the Indian-born Haque migrated to Trinidad with her parents as a young child. She recounted her first experience of astronomy as she looked at the moon through her father’s binoculars in her village in India.

Haque lauded the virtues of science and the benefits that could be realised from encouraging women and girls to pursue it as a career.

In an interview ahead of receiving her award last week, she described her selection as an emotional and humbling experience and admitted it has always been tough for women in science,

However, she expressed hope and optimism that it is an area which is growing as the Caribbean is showing great promise with girls are doing better in science.

In 2018, Haque became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Caricom Science Award.

An inspiring teacher and researcher in the cutting-edge field of astrobiology, she has also pioneered work on the Pitch Lake at La Brea and the mud volcanoes in Trinidad that is recognised internationally. She was featured on BBC’s Science in Action programme in 2008 for her work in Astrobiology at the Pitch Lake, and actively collaborates with astrobiologists in Finland, Germany and the United States.

Haque started an observational astronomy programme at St Augustine in collaboration with the University of Turku in Finland, and its success has brought more international attention to UWI with the contribution of data to the monitoring of a monstrous binary black hole system and the first comet lander mission.

Andrew Sabga, Chairman of the ANSA McAL Foundation, highlighted the strides women had made professionally in science as he noted four women had been awarded Nobel prizes this year, with three in science.

He said: “We are very excited that Dr Haque is part of this wave of women in science. We at ANSA McAL will do everything in our power to encourage the increased participation of women and girls in science.”

The ceremony was one of four held in different territories in the region over the last month for the different laureates.

In Jamaica, Dr Olivene Burke, a social scientist and activist was presented with the Public and Civic Contributions prize; while in St Lucia, sculptor Jallim Eudovic was presented with the Arts & Letters prize; and in Guyana, entrepreneur Andrew Mendes was presented with the Entrepreneurship prize.

All presentations were made by heads of state and government of the various territories.

The Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence is the first regional prize to be awarded annually in science, art, civic activism, and entrepreneurship.

It originated in Trinidad & Tobago in 2005 and was the brainchild of the late Dr Anthony N Sabga. It has made awards to more than 40 exceptional Caribbean people over the last 15 years.