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Here’s what happened on the last day of NEF-GG 2020

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The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) has just concluded the first-ever virtual edition of the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering (NEF-GG), Africa’s largest scientific gathering. Organized against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, under the theme “Building Africa’s resilience through education, research and innovation”, this year’s 3-day event was a shift from the norm as it took place through the Airmeet video conferencing platform.

 With a focus on the importance of science in solving some of Africa’s most pressing problems, the last day of the summit kicked off with the viewing of Wajenzi (Science in Africa). The compelling 32-minute film on science in Africa, showed the journey through the essence, challenges, passion, and vision which drives mathematicians, with interventions from Prof Neil Turok, Prof Emile Chimusa, Dr Hind Ahmed, and many others. It also made a strong case for science as a tool for economic development by highlighting a couple of impact stories.

The first session, “International Day of Mathematics – Mathematics for a better world” featured discussions on the importance of Mathematical modeling and artificial intelligence. Starting with a foreword on the International Day of Mathematics (March 14) previously slated for the March NEF GG in Nairobi, the moderator, Prof Loyiso Nongxa, Vice President of the International Mathematical Union announced a poster challenge inviting schools to draw their posters and organize IDM classroom activities ahead of next year’s celebration. This was closely followed by a presentation on mathematical modelling of a disease transmitted from human to human, resilient systems and the power of mathematical abstraction. Prof Christiane Rousseau, Professor Emeritus, University of Montreal also led a discussion on the new field of computational sustainability, during which she explained the need to look beyond basic data and focus of unconventional forms such as satellite images of the earth: “an example is drawing maps of poverty where the states have no data,” she said. Meanwhile, while commenting on the topic ‘Mathematics and being human,’ Prof Caucher Birkar, Fields Medalist, and Professor at the University of Cambridge explained how Mathematics affects the way people behave, adding a hilarious example of how mathematicians are often too busy working to get into trouble.

During the session on “The role of mathematics in robust disease prevention and modelling in Africa”, the panel shed light on the relevance of mathematical sciences to the study of diseases, including transmission and prevention. Prof Mouhamed Moustapha Fall, Centre President, AIMS Senegal set the tone by revealing that there are presently over 23, 000 publications which study COVID-19, and have been very useful in the fight against the pandemic. Prof Samuel Mwalili, Professor, Jomo Kenyata University immediately gave some insight on how mathematics has been at the forefront like never before. He also shared a very inspiring experience during which he worked with a national team of mathematicians who provided advice on best practices to curb the spread of coronavirus. In conclusion, Prof Sophie Dabo-Niang, Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Lille stressed the need for Africa to invest in more African scientists and modelers from the grassroots stages. “There needs to be a connection between academics and the application of mathematics in real life situations. A lot of what is taught should centre on models which both save time and also provide a solution”, she said.

On the topic of “Disruptive thinking for resilient educational systems, the panelists” explored how COVID-19 requires us to rethink education systems while ensuring equality in access to education. According to Teresa Mbagaya Principal, Imaginable Futures, some of the lessons from the pandemic demonstrated the importance of building a solid foundation alongside policies to ensure Africa is not in the same place when another crisis or natural disaster hits. Speaking on how the pandemic affected both students and teachers, Suraj Shah, Lead, Regional Centre for Innovative Teaching, Mastercard Foundation stressed the need to prioritize the training of teachers on not just how to use tech devices but also engage and educate learners effectively. He also added that teachers require more incentives like better salaries or promotions since they are the core of the learning process.

Hon. Gaspard Twgirayezu, Minister of State, Primary and Secondary Education, Rwanda concluded by explaining some of the ways Rwanda is ensuring that teachers develop themselves and their careers. “Rwanda is investing in training teachers very well, alongside partnerships to provide adequate devices. This is because with limited devices, the teachers may not feel comfortable enough using digital tools, and this will affect students,” he said.

The final NEF Fellows Spotlight Session was also set aside to showcase the work of two sets of fellows across various sectors. They include Prof Cheikh Sarr, Université de Thies; Dr Peter Martey Addo, Senior Data Scientist, Agence Française de Développement (AFD); Dr Eric Lontchi Yimagou, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Dr Vidushi Neergheen, Associate Professor, University of Mauritius; Dr Zaheer Allam, Research Associate, Deakin University, Australia; Dr Jessica P.R Thorn, Research Associate, University of York; Dr Daniel Akinyele, Senior Lecturer, Bells University of Technology, Dr Ebele Mogo, Doctor of Public Health, MRC Epidemiology Unit at University of Cambridge; and Dr Sara Suliman, postdoctoral research fellow, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The final session focused on “Big data innovations addressing COVID-19 in Africa”.Dr Shikoh Gitau, CEO, Qhala limited, started by explaining the extent to which combining different data sets has helped African countries in the fight against the pandemic. “By observing what was happening in other parts of the world, analysts were able to predict or better understand the possible outcome by the time it hit Africa.” She also added that contact tracing was useful in curbing the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, Dr Dunstan Matekenya, Data Scientist, World Bank Group focused on the role of data in creating solutions. For this, he used the example of mobility data which helped to monitor the movement of people while ensuring they stayed at home. He also added the importance of ensuring that available data is backed by an outstanding legal framework. This session was concluded by Caitlin McDonough, Chief Education Officer, Prepr Foundation who shared an overview of scaling solutions across the continent. She also explained the need for cooperation between countries to trade using technology.

Soon after an official flag parade of the 2019-2021 class of NEF Ambassadors, organizers of NEF-GG 2020 gave their closing remarks in high spirits. They included Prof Neil Turok, AIMS Founder & International Governing Board Chair; Lydie Hakizimana, AIMS CEO, Dr Charles Lebon Mberi Kimpolo; Director, AIMS Industry Initiative and Prof Sanushka Naidoo, Chair of the Executive Committee of the NEF Community of Scientists. The 3-day event was moderated by George Ndirangu, journalist at BBC.

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