Teaching statistics in Africa: Volunteering for AIMS-Tanzania

Written by Nancy Duong Nguyen on . Posted in Features

The RSS campaign to send statisticians to teach MSc students in Africa is about to send another of our fellows to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) centre in Tanzania. Nancy Duong Nguyen, who recently finished her PhD in Statistics at University College Dublin, explains what motivated her to volunteer for the scheme before she makes her six-week trip to AIMS-Tanzania.

In the first year of my PhD, I had the pleasure of listening to Jonathan Rougier (Bristol) and Peter Diggle (Lancaster) discuss their interesting projects in Africa. Along with other students at the Academy for PhD Training in Statistics, I was fascinated (and amused) with Professor Rougier’s work on weighing donkeys in Kenya and inspired by Professor Diggle’s work on modelling the prevalence of river blindness in some African countries. These two professors concluded their talks with what I will always remember - there are more than enough good problems for us statisticians to work on and that we should always analyse the problems, not the data.

So here I am, motivated to use my skills to help students at the AIMS-Tz solve (or attempt to solve) a few good problems in the world. While I will not be able to cure malaria (I’m not that kind of doctor!), my little help can perhaps further our understanding of the prevalence and spread of malaria, and that’s good enough for me. 

As part of their year-long programme, students at the AIMS-Tz have to produce a minor thesis (about 30-40 pages long) during the research phase from April to June. My responsibilities as a tutor during this phase include assisting supervisors from partnering universities (mostly outside of Tanzania) with monitoring the students’ progress and providing daily support to the students. This support ranges from reading their thesis drafts and correcting their grammar mistakes (English is not the first language for most, if not all, students) to guiding them through the process of writing an academic document; from explaining statistical concepts to providing technical help with R programming, etc.

So far I have been assigned ten students with very interesting projects. They cover a diverse range of topics such as survival analysis, geostatistics, classification and clustering, Monte Carlo methods and probabilistic forecasting. My PhD was in survey methodology and the treatment of missing data, so this volunteer opportunity has got me learning many new things. 

With the departure date drawing closer, I am both overwhelmed and excited about the prospect of living in the same compound with the students for almost six weeks and discussing statistics during breakfasts, lunches and dinners, even on weekends (we were exchanging numerous work emails last Sunday). I’ve had a Skype call with the students assigned to me and they all appear to be motivated and hard working. That’s very encouraging. 

I’d like to thank Jane Hutton (Warwick) and Cathal Walsh (Limerick) for sharing their past experiences at the AIMS-Tz with me, as well as Dr. Isambi Mbalawata, other tutors and students at the centre for making me feel welcomed even before my arrival. I thank the RSS and the AIMS-Tz for providing me with this unique opportunity to grow and to give back, and I look forward to sharing my experience upon my return.  

Peter Diggle African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)

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