The power of a math conference in Africa
Written by William Foreman
BUEA, Cameroon—She’s a math whiz whose dream job is working as an actuary in the insurance industry, calculating risk for companies. So that’s why Ndayong Laura made sure she was sitting in the front row for a special lecture in actuarial science this summer.
Ndayong fanned herself with a piece of paper to stay cool in the sticky humidity as a professor from Italy clicked through a PowerPoint presentation in the packed classroom in the West African nation of Cameroon.
Attending the lecture was an exciting experience for Ndayong because actuarial classes aren’t offered in her master’s program in mathematics at the University of Buea near Cameroon’s Atlantic coast.
“You sit in your room and you say you want to be an actuarian, but you don’t know what it’s all about,” Ndayong said. “But when someone with professional experience comes and talks about it with you, you get more motivated. You see whether you want to get into the field or not. You see what it is all about.”
The course was part of a two-week summer school linked to the Buea International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences, co-sponsored by the University of Michigan. The unique biennial event, which started four years ago, brings global experts to Africa. They discuss their research with their peers across the continent. They also share their knowledge with students and teachers during the summer school, which runs concurrently with the conference.
The duel approach is a great way to maximize the impact of the academic gathering. It’s also one of the reasons why the Buea (pronounced BOY-AH) meeting is like no other math conference in Africa.
Ndayong was one of 50 students and teachers who attended this year’s summer school on April 22-May 3. The Buea conference is largely made possible through the vision and efforts of Nkem Khumbah, lecturer of mathematics with the Comprehensive Studies Program at U-M.
When he was a graduate student, Khumbah began thinking of ways he could use his training in the mathematical sciences to serve his native Cameroon and the rest of Africa. He thought about teaching, but he figured he could only assist a few students. He wanted to make a bigger difference, and a conference seemed to be a good way.
“Africa faces many challenges in developing the mathematical sciences,” he said. “These challenges are systemic and can’t be addressed by one person, one university or one country.”
When the first conference was held in 2009, 88 people registered to attend. For this year’s conference—the third one—more than 260 people registered from 21 countries, including professors from Germany, Italy, Kenya, Norway, Nigeria, India, Israel, Spain, South Africa and the U.S.
U-M’s delegation included mathematics professors Dan Burns and Bob Griess.
The University of Buea has been a key sponsor, and its campus at the foot of Mt. Cameroon—the highest peak in West Africa—provides a beautiful setting for the meeting. Cream-colored buildings and walkways of crushed red lava rock are surrounded by coconut palms, hibiscus and plumeria trees, which produce the pink, white and yellow flowers found in Hawaiian lei necklaces.
Khumbah said there are similar conferences in Africa, but they tend to be regional and narrow in scope and scale. What makes the Buea meeting special is that it’s a conference for the broad mathematical sciences. That means every field of study that uses mathematics is welcome. Subjects include finance, medicine, agriculture, physics, biology and computer science.
“We discuss the kind of mathematical problems, solutions and policies that can enable development in other areas of society. It is a prominent forum for generating scientific synergies for the advancement of Africa’s scientific and technological workforce.” Khumbah said.
The conference fits in well with U-M’s engagement with the continent, led by the university’s African Studies Center, which helps fund the Buea meeting through its STEM-Africa Initiative.
Most U.S. universities have traditionally focused on the study of social sciences and the humanities in Africa. No other major American university is as involved in “STEM”—science, technology, engineering and math—in Africa as U-M is.
Burns has been involved with the conference since the early planning stages. He has also attended all three editions and is impressed with the way international participation is expanding, and students are coming from broader areas of study and different African Countries.
“The students are a great recruitment pool for an institution like the University of Michigan,” he said.
One of the most important developments is that more decision makers are showing up at the conference, Burns said.
“They’re using it as a marketplace or a forum,” he said, “so that everyone can get together and discuss how we’re going to spend our limited resources and have the biggest impact for African science.”