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Highlights from NEF-GG 2020: Day One

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The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is currently hosting 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 is a shift from the norm as it is taking place through the Airmeet video conferencing platform.

During the opening ceremony, the Minister of Health, Rwanda, Hon Dr Daniel Ngamije emphasized the need to stay ahead of the pandemic as he announced the collaboration between the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the Government of Rwanda to provide adequate software for COVID-19 testing. “The Ministry of Health in Rwanda has closely worked with scientists including Prof Wilfred Ndifon from AIMS and Prof Leon Mutesa from the University of Rwanda to pioneer new methods of screening COVID-19 infections recently published in the International Scientific Journal,” he said.

The highly anticipated plenary discussion on “Finding the next Einstein, preparing Africa to lead in scientific discovery” moderated by AIMS Founder and Board Chair Prof Neil Turok, with top scientists including three Nobel Prize laureates and one Field Medalist focused on the prospects of a generation that could change the face of science. According to Sir Richard J. Roberts, Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 1993, the most important factor in making any scientific breakthrough is the ability to enlighten the public in a way they can understand. He also encouraged aspiring scientists to ensure they are passionate about their career paths: “Work isn’t work anymore, it’s a hobby! You also need to remember that it can take a long time before basic research can have practical consequences. So, once you’ve found something you want to do, talk to mentors and teachers, but most importantly, read up on other research,” he explained.

Other panelists shared their personal experiences and why funding is critical for Africans to keep making discoveries. Prof Jacques Marescaux, President IRCAD France explained in detail how he is able to approach investors. “In my field, what we explain to our investors is that if we want to invent the future of surgery, we need a very strong team of computer scientists and engineers. A cell of donors is always needed in order to complete life changing missions. Thus, Africa needs to engage more government and private partnerships”, he said.

Meanwhile, during the session on Combating disease outbreaks: Preventing future shocks – Focus on Ebola and COVID-19, moderated by NEF Fellow, Dr Sara Suliman, the panel focused on maximizing diagnosis capacity in Africa. Dr Robert deGraft Kwame Agyarko, Lead Advisor, Outbreaks and Epidemics (O&E)African Risk Capacity spoke on the need for Africa to invest in solutions and not only diagnostics. Dr Francisco J. Marmolejo Cossío, Career Development Fellow in Computer Science, University of Oxford added to this by stating the importance of collaboration between laboratory hubs across the continent in order to improve diagnostics, while predicting some of the changes associated with the “new normal.”

The session on “The role of science in informing recovery from global crisis such as COVID-19”, with interventions from Dr Nana Ama Browne Klutse AIMS-Rwanda Research Chair in Climate Change Science, Prof Agnes Binagwaho UGHE Vice Chancellor, Dr Zaheer Allam Research Associate, Deakin University, Australia (NEF Fellow), Prof Jacques Belair, Department of Mathematics and Statistics,  Montréal University and Dr Tolullah Oni Co-Director of Global Diet and Activity Research Group, MRC Epidemiology Unit,  University of Cambridge, shed light on how scientific innovation, and business communities’ can partner to support emergency responses and government actions towards  socioeconomic recovery.

Women, youth and other vulnerable groups were not left out as a separate session around “The impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups such as youth and women” singled out ways of enabling the development of nuanced response measures that factor in existing inequalities. Dr Herine Otieno-Menya, Director of AIMS Teacher Training Program, AIMS Global Network shed some light on the importance of an enabling environment to advance the status of women in science, academia and industry.

The last session for the day centred on Leadership during COVID-19: Best practices and recommendations for futuristic policies.  Dr Mama Foupouagnigni, Chief Academic Officer, AIMS Global Network set the tone with a case study of what the academic year entailed for most institutions. “With much effort, we were able to combine both online and face to face interaction. That way, learning didn’t have to stop,” he said.

Additionally, Olivia Bryanne Zank, Founder & CEO shared some of the experiences and lessons the pandemic has taught her organization. “As a company that provides working capital to SMEs in Rwanda, we had to become more committed to understanding the sectors of our clients, alongside their unique challenges. For instance, tourism suffered a heavy blow as a result of the pandemic. We also had to meet increased demand when it came to clients within the health sectors,” she explained. Ms. Aurelia CALABRO, UNIDO Representative, Ethiopia, United Nations Industrial Development concluded by sharing a few of the lessons she learnt from the Ebola crisis. For instance, she stressed the need to work on capacity building projects as a way of lifting those in dire need.

The NEF Fellows Spotlight Session was also set aside to showcase the work of four fellows across health, research and academia. They include Dr Menattallah Elserafy, Assistant Professor Zewail City of Science and Technology; Dr Geoffrey Henry Siwo, Research Assistant Professor, University of Notre Dame; Dr Salome Maswime, Associate Professor, University of Cape Town and Dr Alpha Keita Kabinet, Deputy Director, Centre de Recherche et de Formation en Infectiologie de Guinée.

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