Aiming high

Some of you may already have seen the feature article in this week’s issue of Nature about the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences. What you probably don’t know is that our own Wilson Lamb has been involved with this institute — and in fact many of the students in the photograph that heads the Nature article were in Wilson’s class at AIMS last year. (Wilson is also involved with the James Clerk Maxwell AIMS Fund, which is a specifically Scottish initiative to support the Institute.) Given there’s a Strathclyde connection, it seemed worth explaining a bit more about AIMS — because it seems that there are lessons that the rest of the mathematical world can learn from it.

AIMS is based in South Africa, though it now has campuses in Senegal and Ghana as well. It gives some of the top mathematical sciences students from across Africa a chance to study at the highest level and to connect with the international mathematical community. The hope is that in the long run this will benefit African countries, where higher education has often been neglected in favour of more urgent (though perhaps not more important) concerns; it will also benefit mathematics by tapping into a huge reservoir of talent that would otherwise be wasted. Academics from other countries are invited to the Institute to deliver three-week intensive courses and to supervise research projects, which can then be carried on with input via email and Skype.

One of the things that strikes me is that none of the international academics involved with AIMS sees their work as though it were some kind of charitable duty. Rather, they describe it as a privilege. To quote from the Nature article,

The level of interaction is intense, says Aguilar. Students work all hours and go for long walks on the beach to thrash out ideas. Instructors and students live on site and eat together in the cafeteria, where the lively discussion continues. “The schedule says we should be working with them for two hours a day, but really, it’s more like five.” And after three weeks, he says, “they were writing their own programmes, doing loops, doing integrals, derivations. I thought: ‘This is just fantastic.’ ”

A student at AIMS (from the AIMS website).

That enthusiasm is shared by the students: Ambinintsoa Malalanirainy Rakotoson, one of the students quoted by Nature, says “Everybody speaks science. It’s very exciting… It’s like a library with people instead of books.” It’s no wonder that Wilson describes the AIMS students as “a joy to teach”.

I can’t help feeling that some of this joy — for both students and teachers — may be because there’s a healthy streak of ambition running through the project. To quote the founder of AIMS, the South African cosmologist Neil Turok,

It’s not about bringing Africa up to some mediocre level, or worse, about mere survival. It’s about demonstrating that Africa can produce world-leading scientists.

Working all hours; thrashing out ideas; refusing to be content with a mediocre level of achievement… it seems a million miles from the cynical “just-do-enough-to-get-by” attitude that we have to struggle against so often in this country. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Neil Turok describes AIMS as “reinventing the university”. In this case, reinventing doesn’t mean having shinier logos or more business-like management structures, and it doesn’t even mean spending the whole time trying to be “impactful” or “entrepreneurial”. It just means going back to the basics: making it possible for people who really want to learn to spend time with people who really want to share what they know.

Of course, not every institution can be exactly like AIMS, any more than every institution can be exactly like Cambridge, or Paris-Sud, or even MIT. But, as with those other places, we could stand to ask ourselves: what can we learn from what they do?


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