The right equation for Africa
How the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is helping shape the continent's future
Posted by Niki Wilson on March 15, 2016
As a young Zimbabwean biology teacher about to become a student at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2004, Tendai Mugwawa had no idea that her time there would radically change the course of her career. Ten months of intense study would fuse her passion for math and biology, and ignite a desire to eradicate the diseases that plague her country. She would go on to earn a PhD in theoretical immunology, and ultimately work for Public Health England, where she now develops mathematical models that are used to understand and control tuberculosis outbreaks.
It’s important work, but also a stepping-stone. “My ambition is to be on the team that makes policy to control disease,” she says. “For example, in situations like the outbreak of Ebola in North Africa.” Like many graduates of the institute, Mugwawa eventually wants to put her skills to work in Africa. She’s already taking leaves from Public Health England to teach as a sessional instructor at the Cameroon branch of the institute, in the capital, Yaoundé.
The institute is the brainchild of Neil Turok, an awarding-winning physicist and the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Ont. Turok grew up in South Africa until his family was exiled for publically opposing apartheid in 1966. As a 17-year-old in the mid-1970s, Turok returned to Africa and became a volunteer teacher in Lesotho. His experiences with bright young students convinced him to create a place where Africans could cultivate skills to solve African problems.
What started out as one facility in South Africa in 2003 has led to four more across the continent, in Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal. This expansion is part of the Next Einstein Initiative, which started in 2008 and is one of the institute’s core programs. Its purpose is to open 15 more branches of the institute across Africa by 2023. Through the program, the institute envisions that “people of rare ability — Africa’s own Einsteins — will emerge, capable of innovative breakthroughs to transform Africa’s future.”
Through its International Development Research Centre, Canada is one of many governments supporting this expansion. AIMS also benefits from the support of universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, and academic patrons such as Stephen Hawking.
With increased capacity, the list of successful alumni tackling everything from disease control to economics continues to grow. So far, 960 students from 42 African countries have graduated — 31 per cent of them women. These students have had the benefit of world-class lecturers, including Jeff Orchard, a computer scientist from the University of Waterloo.
Orchard is interested in how the brain works, particularly in the mechanisms that underlie how the brain is organized and how it moves information around. He studies this at the level of neurons, and develops computer programs to simulate neural activity. In 2012 and 2014, he offered a course at the institute in South Africa that explained the math and computing science behind the programs.
Most students come to the institute with some kind of math background, and lecturers such as Orchard are brought in to build on that in a number of disciplines, he explains. “Last time as I was arriving, a team of scientists from Austria and the United States were just leaving, having taught a course on insurance,” he says.
All topics, however broad, are connected through the application of math skills. “Math is the universal language of science,” says Orchard. “With a math degree what you get is very careful, abstract thinkers that can take a problem, put it in a broader context and solve a broader problem.”
For Orchard, though, the institute is about much more than academics. He says the sense of community that came from eating, working and living with all the other students and faculty was one of the highlights of his time there.
Mugawa believes her experience at the institute changed the way she viewed science. “Before, I used to see mathematics as a set of problems that needed solving,” she says. “But now it is a set of tools that I can use to solve other life problems.”
Teachers: Download the workbook that accompanies this article
Highlight the amazing work that the International Development Research Centre is doing around the world to your students. Each booklet contains a copy of the blog post and several different activities to help students understand the critical role Canadian work is playing in developing nations.
Download the workbook
This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.