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AIMS for African Math and Science

Located in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences ( AIMS) is a unique educational center dedicated to strengthening scientific and technological development in Africa. The institute is a collaboration between South Africa's universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and the Western Cape. Lectures are taught in association with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, and the University of Paris-Sud, in France. Now in its second year, the 9-month postgraduate course in the mathematical sciences recruits promising science, math, and engineering students from various African countries and lecturers from around the world.

I interviewed AIMS's director, Fritz Hahne, and AIMS's founder and council chair, Neil Turok. Hahne is the former dean of science for the University of Stellenbosch, and Turok is the chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge University. The two South African natives plan the educational center's culture, classes, and initiatives together. We discussed AIMS's history, goals, and niche in promoting international science initiatives.

Brain StayThe institute has a strong culture of commitment to Africa, and AIMS officials are sensitive to balancing the fight against brain drain (see "African and Caribbean Brain Drain " Part 1 and Part 2) with the isolation felt by many African researchers who choose to stay. Part of their goal is encouraging African scientists to stay on the continent but allowing them to develop international networks that would enable them to do elite science.

Turok has seen many African students at Cambridge become alienated from their homelands, believing they can't do research within Africa. "There are unique opportunities for building science in Africa and for African development," he says. Epidemiology (which they teach) is mentioned, among others, as a discipline that is best studied in Africa, where epidemics continually ravage the continent. So far, AIMS has successfully kept its students in Africa; at least 20 of last year's 30 students are now in graduate programs in Africa (18 in South Africa).

The Real World: Academia
AIMS uses an "interactive style of teaching" that is possible due to the institute's small size. The student-teacher exchange allows professors to make adjustments--often on the fly--to meet student requests and needs.

The campus is a former residential hotel with a computer lab, a library, lecture facilities, and housing for students and teachers. "The students and lecturers interact, essentially, 24 hours a day," Turok says. "We don't have professors coming to teach who simply talk at the blackboard and then disappear." This "hothouse" atmosphere stimulates learning. Hahne concurs, adding that AIMS is the closest he has seen to a true academic institution.

AIMS uses a comprehensive academic model that grounds its students in general mathematical and computational concepts and shows them how to apply those principles to real-world situations. The course has three phases: skills classes, review classes, and an essay. Skills classes teach concepts such as probability and statistics, mathematical modeling, methods of mathematical physics, and differential equations. Review classes cover topics on science's cutting edge, which often have particular relevance to current challenges in Africa. They include wireless communication, financial mathematics, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, and epidemiology.

Some of the students, faculty, and staff for the 2003-04 school year.

For the essay, students spend 6 to 8 weeks with a local academic supervisor, researching and writing a report on a specific topic of interest. Depending on the topic, the essay may require performing original calculations and analyses. Last year's topics included holography, neutrino masses, American versus European stock-option pricing, molecular dynamics simulations, and modeling the physiology of the HIV/AIDS virus.

Classes consist of morning (and occasionally night) lectures coupled with afternoon problem-solving and computer sessions. Students conduct research by modeling and testing systems during computer sessions. Upon completion of the course, students get a postgraduate diploma in the mathematical sciences accredited by the three South African partner universities. Turok estimates that in the course's 9 months, students get the equivalent of 2 years of graduate education at a conventional university. Students can then get a master's degree in another 9 months to a year.

This year, 44 students were selected (out of 185 applications) from 18 countries. The students are a diverse group of men and women, including Muslims and Christians and English and French speakers. Financial aid is available to all students, many of whom are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. "They are a remarkable group of people who are amongst the best students in their countries in math and science," says Turok. Highly dedicated, they are often in the computer lab until 2 a.m. and back in the classroom 5 hours later, he notes. "The students really see us as an opportunity for their lives," says Hahne. But his praise isn't unilateral. "I think the commitment on both sides--the students and the staff--is much higher than I have experienced anywhere."

Annually, courses begin with AIMS's officials identifying a field they'd like the students to learn about and then identifying some of its best lecturers. They're not looking only for good researchers but for excellent communicators who work well with students and are committed to education. They've had a high acceptance rate for lecturers, and most who've taught at AIMS want to do it again. "Faculty come here to give something, and they do it to the fullest," Hahne says.

The institute isn't restricted to students and lecturers alone. A postdoc from the University of California, Berkeley, is also currently visiting there. AIMS also has a Visiting Scholars Program, which recruits researchers from throughout the African diaspora for 6 to 8 weeks. Currently, Dominic Clemens, a mathematician from the University of North Carolina, lectures AIMS students. "Our long-term goal is to draw scientists of African heritage back to Africa," Turok says.

But, as for many ambitious nonprofit organizations, funding can be problematic. "Funding is a big operation, and we spend a lot of time worrying about funds and how to raise money for all of this," Turok says. Those efforts have yielded major donors in Vodafone, PetroSA, Vodacom, the Sainsbury family, the South African government, and the Mellon Foundation. Although it's an ongoing struggle, the facility itself has also done its best to be cost effective. It helps that South Africa's cheaper commodities and lower wages reduce costs to approximately a quarter of what they would be in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Just the Start
AIMS's ultimate goal is to serve as a pilot program for the promotion and development of science education, research, and technology in Africa. Turok and Hahne have plans to expand the program's current format. Next year, they hope to admit 50 students. They are also exploring the option of adding corporate internships to the course. Already, several South African and pan-African companies and researchers have inquired about hiring AIMS students.

AIMS currently has a proposal for what it calls the African Mathematical Institute Network (AMI-Net) to develop other computer centers and AIMS-like centers throughout Africa. Those facilities will then be able to exchange materials and software, as well as train others in technology fields. "By sharing resources, Africa actually begins to become a strong continent," Turok says.

AIMS students are encouraged to eventually build institutes similar to AIMS in their home countries. "The idea is in 10 years' time, we'll have over 400 graduates who will be an organization with a common goal, which is to build up math and science in Africa and to benefit the continent." Representatives in other African nations are also looking to develop AIMS-like institutes in their own countries. The World Bank has even proposed the African Institute for Science and Technology, more affectionately known as "MIT in Africa." This Tanzanian project will require $1 billion to open in 2007. Whether those plans come to fruition may depend on AIMS's success, which Turok knows will ultimately be judged by the success of its students.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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