Campus & Community

DEAS researcher takes turn training future African scientists

3 min read

Moyer teaches environmental modeling mini-course

Elisabeth Moyer knows that planeloads of relief supplies arrive regularly in Africa. She knows that African and international workers struggle to provide food and to fight diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and polio.

But lost amid the continent’s immediate needs and concerns are its scientists, who Moyer and a growing number of others believe are key to Africa’s future.

“It’s not enough,” Moyer said of current aid efforts. “Where are Africa’s engineers going to come from? Where are the research scientists going to come from? Where are the ministers of the environment going to come from?”

So this winter, Moyer, a research associate in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology working with Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James Anderson, did something about it. She traveled to South Africa in February and March to teach a course in environmental modeling at an innovative South African institute that sharpens African graduate students’ math and science skills and prepares them for further graduate study or careers in teaching, industry, or government.

Called the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), the Cape Town-based program attracts the best and brightest from across the continent and immerses them in a nine-month program that emphasizes mathematical concepts and problem solving.

AIMS Director Fritz Hahne said AIMS depends heavily on both the financial support of international donors and the expertise of volunteers such as Moyer.

“Lecturers from all over the world have volunteered to teach block courses of three weeks at AIMS,” Hahne said. “In this way, AIMS is able to expose the brightest young minds from all over Africa to areas of knowledge and research of which they were not aware. It brings these students into the realm of international science.”

Hahne said lecturers propose different courses and AIMS selects those courses that will provide a good combination of basic science and fields relevant to Africa.

“The AIMS program is crucial for the development of Africa in that it strengthens the science base and it builds capacity at African universities,” Hahne said. “It also teaches students to tackle real problems that need to be solved for African development. It is hoped that after leaving AIMS, these persons will also take up positions in industry and in public administration in their native countries.”

Moyer’s class met 11 hours per week for three weeks, cramming in nearly a semester’s work. Moyer said much of what she had been told to expect was true: The students were exceptionally eager and bright. In fact, she had been told not to give the students too many optional problems because they would stay up all night working on them.

Moyer’s students represented a cross-section of Africa, she said. Students hailed from across the continent, including Cameroon, Zambia, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. Some came from wealthy backgrounds while some came from more humble beginnings. They were all enthusiastic, and able to do high-level computation. But because too many schools emphasize memorization over problem solving, the students sometimes struggled with approaches to the kinds of real-world problems that one might face as a researcher.

Moyer’s class emphasized estimation and teasing out answers from an imperfect constellation of facts.

Mike Pickles, AIMS head teaching assistant, said he was impressed with Moyer’s dedication to her students, several of whom are now considering careers in environmental modeling, a subject they hadn’t experienced before taking her class.

“Her classes went well,” Pickles said. “Student feedback was generally very positive, with some students saying they were now seriously considering a career in environmental modeling.”