Aiming high

How mathematics is building bridges between Africa and UBC

When Felix Oghenekohwo graduated from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 2007, he had an undergraduate degree in Physics and ambitious plans to continue his academic pursuits at a higher level. Figuring out his next step in Africa was a challenge, until he learned about a unique program, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS.

AIMS also has an ambitious goal:  to develop mathematical and scientific talent across Africa. The Institute, founded in 2003, has centres in South Africa and Senegal and plans to open more in other African countries. AIMS offers students from all over Africa an extraordinary opportunity to study with professors from leading universities and earn credentials that are recognized around the world. By building knowledge, skills and capacity, AIMS develops local talent to solve the continent’s problems.

Oghenekohwo began his studies at the AIMS Centre in Cape Town, South Africa in August 2007.  The next ten months were transformational.

“I built my math skills to the level where I knew I could participate in an international competitive research group,” he says.  After receiving his post-graduate diploma from AIMS, Oghenekohwo went on to complete a Masters in Geophysics at the University of Cape Town.  By the time he graduated, he was already back at AIMS, working as a tutor. That’s when he met UBC Earth and Ocean Sciences Professor Douw Steyn.

Steyn had gone to AIMS South Africa in October of 2010, with initial plans to stay only a short while and teach a course. He soon decided to extend his stay. Meanwhile, one of his UBC students wanted to follow in his footsteps. James Ferguson arrived in Cape Town in January 2011. Inspired by the goal of AIMS, and his own belief in the value of math, he signed up to be a tutor for a five-month stretch. Ferguson found that his time at AIMS more than repaid his efforts.

“I got more out of it than I gave to it, and I gave it my all,” says Ferguson. He notes the remarkable learning process: “As the students go through the program, they take more ownership of their projects, learn to think critically and independently, to solve problems. They gain confidence.”

Steyn, Ferguson and Oghenekohwo are part of a global contingent of professors, students and researchers who have embraced the vision of AIMS and made their own contributions to the program. Their story does not end in Africa.

Oghenekohwo is now at UBC doing his PhD in Geophysics. Working under the supervision of Professor Felix Herrmann, he is a member of research group investigating dynamic nonlinear optimization for imaging in seismic exploration. He is pursuing his goals at a very great distance from his wife, Zubeida, and their infant son, Rukevwe, who remain in Cape Town. It’s certainly not easy to be apart, but the prospect of a PhD from UBC drives him forward.

Steyn and Ferguson are back at UBC, but Africa, and AIMS, continue to beckon. Ferguson is considering another trip, possibly to AIMS Senegal, and Steyn has created a new link between UBC and AIMS: a partnership agreement, which provides scholarship funding for African students to study at AIMS Centres in Africa, and encourages them to apply to UBC for graduate studies.

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