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Ebola and beyond: How Canada backs African problem-solvers

March 17, 2017

Jean Lebel

President, IDRC

Martial Ndeffo is battling Ebola with mathematics. The epidemiologist from Cameroon is helping Liberia’s Ministry of Health make decisions that will affect us all as it races to halt the spread of the fast-moving disease.

Officials in the West African country hardest hit by the epidemic are studying mathematical models he has worked on as they grapple with crucial questions. How many hospital beds will be needed in the weeks ahead, and where? What level of coverage of any vaccine treatment could help bring the epidemic under control?

Ndeffo is a graduate of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, the brainchild of Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok. Less than a decade ago, he completed a rigorous 10-month course at the first AIMS centre in South Africa (followed by a University of Cambridge PhD). Now, he is working with colleagues at the Yale School of Public Health on math problems of urgent global importance.

Another AIMS graduate, Dessalegn Melesse from Ethiopia, works at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Global Public Health on mathematical modelling of HIV, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases.

Advanced math skills

Their work illustrates how much mathematics matters in today’s world. Advanced math skills underpin the high-level planning and communicating that are now so vital to healthy societies and vibrant economies. Ndeffo and Melesse’s accomplishments also point to the high cost of wasting any of the world’s problem-solving talent, wherever it can be found.

Canada was the first major donor to back the Next Einstein Initiative, which envisions a network of 15 AIMS centres across Africa by 2021. Fortunately, harnessing Africa’s largely untapped human potential in applied mathematics is now widely seen as a smart investment.

The initial $20 million from Canada was a catalyst that helped raise an additional $70 million, including $29 million from Britain, and millions more from African governments, the private sector, and foundations. Canada’s International Development Research Centre manages the contributions from Canada and Britain.

When I became President of IDRC last year, I had already heard great things about AIMS. But it was on a state visit to Africa with Governor General David Johnston that I saw for myself the enormous promise of AIMS, for the brilliant young Africans offered a life-changing opportunity and for the world.

Fellow delegate Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid and I paid an impromptu visit to the AIMS centre in Cape Town. Prime Minister Stephen Harper credits Braid, a tireless champion of AIMS, with bringing the Next Einstein Initiative to his attention.

We found a group of students hard at work, well into the evening, and struck up a fascinating conversation with a young woman from Madagascar as she used complex algorithms to improve digital brain images.

Top-notch jobs

AIMS has graduated more than 700 such bright mathematical scientists, one-third of them women, from 41 African countries. Graduates are pursuing master’s and PhD degrees, occupying top-notch jobs in industry and research, and reinvigorating science teaching in African universities.

Almost three-quarters of AIMS graduates have remained in Africa, while most of those currently abroad – like Martial Ndeffo – are applying their skills in areas of obvious value to the continent.

The Next Einstein funding has allowed new AIMS centres to open at the rate of one a year, in Senegal (2011), Ghana (2012), and Cameroon (2013). A fifth centre, in Tanzania, welcomes its first students in a few weeks.

Scholarships cover students’ tuition and living expenses as they learn from some of the world’s leading mathematicians. Two dozen Canadian lecturers are among those who have volunteered their time to be part of this inspiring project.

Six Canadian universities provide scholarships that support students at the AIMS centres. In addition, 38 AIMS graduates have come to Canada to undertake graduate degrees or to complete internships as part of the AIMS Industry Initiative.

The vision of a pan-African network of AIMS centres enjoys broad, non-partisan support – evidenced by a well-attended event on Parliament Hill, hosted by the Speaker of the House of Commons on October 1, celebrating the progress to date.

Canada is forging important links with the next generation of African leaders through our commitment to helping AIMS expand. AIMS is producing highly motivated problem-solvers with the advanced mathematical skills needed to confront the tremendous challenges facing Africa, and the world. We can take pride in Canada’s leadership in supporting this remarkable endeavour.

This op-ed was first published in The Globe and Mail on October 3, 2014.

Jean Lebel is the President of IDRC.

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