Jean Rizk, a third-year PhD Candidate at the University of Limerick, volunteered as a tutor at AIMS Cameroon, based in Limbe. Here, he shares his experiences.
Volunteering to help African postgraduatesf with their dissertations is one of the best life decisions I’ve made. What a tremendous and humbling experience! At AIMS Cameroon, a group of young and passionate African mathematicians and physicists are trying to overcome a variety of obstacles to prove that they can be great scientists and efficient contributors to society.
About AIMS Cameroon
47 passionate young scientists come from all over the African continent. They all live, study and do research in one place, in the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). It is a postgraduate educational centre supporting the development of mathematics and science across Africa. The AIMS-Cameroon programme is training students with educational and scientific resources that are equivalent to their counterparts in more developed countries. The students are being equipped with mathematical and statistical tools to work on real-life problems.
AIMS was founded in 2003 by the South African/Canadian mathematical physicist, Neil Turok, whose dream was that, within his lifetime, an African Einstein would be celebrated!
Apart from Cameroon, there are five other AIMS centres in Africa; they are based in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania and Rwanda. Half of AIMS-Cameroon’s funding comes from donations, which it uses not only to provide excellent education but also to feed and accommodate the students and support them financially with monthly stipends. Despite the scarcity of the amount, the students tend to save their money and send it home to their families.
The dissertation phase
The lecturers there are volunteers and come from all over the world, sent over by AIMS academic partners. Other than lecturing, they also propose and supervise projects during the essay phase (April–May). Each student works on a project and submits a thesis by the end of May. The research phase is a crucial part of AIMS educational programme.
The Royal Statistical Society is one of AIMS’s academic partners. I have been involved in the RSS throughout my PhD, and I was given the opportunity to assist AIMS-Cameroon students with their dissertations. The lecturers are usually not around during the essay phase; therefore, they connect with their students via video calls. My main role, just like the other local tutors on site, was to be the link between the students and their supervisors and make sure that the communication between them is clear and ongoing. I also followed up on the students’ progress, I made sure they meet deadlines efficiently, I answered their statistics questions, assisted them in coding, and guided them in the thesis writeup. The projects mainly target problems that arise in African industry; for example: effect of air pollution on cardiovascular diseases, interventions on the transmission of Ebola, students’ attitudes to reading, mosquito population dynamics, modelling of school capacity, weather derivatives and option pricing, deep-learning in earthquake seismology, and many other topics that target real African problems.
The first three-minute thesis competition
After submitting their thesis, the students present and defend their work. The 15-minute presentation should not involve any slides, but the blackboard can be used if needed. To prepare the students for their defense presentations, I decided to run a science-communication event to boost their confidence in public speaking, and make them look at the core of their thesis and the impact they hope it would make. With the help of the staff and the students, we ran a three-minute thesis competition, where students talked about their essay projects in just three minutes. I was stunned with their communication skills and I learned a lot from their talks. We run the event every Saturday for three weeks and the finalists competed end of May, and three winners were crowned.
Morning training sessions
Apart from research, we also exercised. I’m a CrossFit trainer myself and I was happy to run a fitness club to train the students as well as the tutors. We trained at 6.30 am twice a week. The workouts involved functional movements that train individuals not only to be fit and healthy but also to be strong members of the society. I taught them lifting techniques using rocks. I also trained them on how to lift and carry each other. This taught them how to carry other people in emergency situations.
I am delighted to have had this opportunity through the RSS. This experience has so far given me a great sense of fulfilment, appreciation and connectedness. Although it has been challenging, and it really taught me to appreciate many things in life, such as simply the washing machine (I handwashed my clothes), the 24/7 electricity and internet (power cuts were always expected), the shower (I bucket showered when the water was off), and many other things that I’ve always taken for granted. It has been great connecting with these amazing people, with a shared passion for mathematics and statistics. I really hope I have made a difference in these people’s lives, at least as big as the difference they have made in my life!
In a few months, I will submit my PhD thesis. My future career path is still undecided, but there is one thing I am certain about: I’m going back to volunteer in AIMS again!