Nurturing a New Generation of African Scientists

© 2016 Sarah E. Rich

Amid high spirits and a sense of accomplishment, RISE, the Regional Initiative in Science and Education in Africa, held the capstone meeting of its inaugural 8-year phase on April 19-22 in Nairobi. Some 80 doctoral and master’s degree recipients and students, joined by academic leaders, gathered to share experiences, learn from one another, and imagine their futures as the architects of Africa’s development.

Since 2008, RISE has been supporting PhD- and MSc-level scientists and engineers in sub-Saharan Africa through five competitively selected, university-based research and teaching networks in locally relevant science and engineering disciplines. With funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York and a secretariat based at the Science Initiative Group (SIG) at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, RISE has been instrumental in nurturing a new generation of African scientists. To date, the RISE networks have trained a total of 180 emerging scientists hailing from 17 African countries.

© 2016 Sarah E. Rich
RISE Graduate Dr. Nelson Odume

The April meeting was a celebration and showcase; a networking opportunity where inter-university partnerships were reinforced and research collaborations established; and a forum to plan the next phase of RISE. Dr. Nelson Odume, Director of the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality at Rhodes University in South Africa, earned both his master’s degree and his doctorate at Rhodes through RISE’s water resources network. “Being part of RISE is a rare privilege to engage with some of the best scientific minds on the continent and to undertake groundbreaking research projects. Thanks to my positive experience as a part of the RISE community, I wake up each day looking forward to contributing to the socioeconomic development of Africa by doing research that meets the needs of the continent.”

Prof. Berhanu Abegaz, a leader in the field of natural products chemistry, had participated in early discussions that led to the creation of RISE. Now Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences, he remarked at the April meeting that RISE had “contributed greatly to capacity development on the continent,” notably in promoting greater participation by women, young scientists, and local leaders.

Prof. Tade Aina, formerly of Carnegie Corporation, acknowledged RISE as an institution that is “a model for African governments.”

© 2016 Sarah E. Rich
L to R: Dr. Benjamin Kumwenda, Dr. Adenike Olaseinde, Dr. Jane Tanner, Dr. Jane Namukobe, Dr. Majuto Manyilizu

Winners of the Competitive Fund for RISE PhD graduates for the creation or expansion of university-based research groups were also announced at the conference. Seed grants of $25,000 each were awarded to Benjamin Kumwenda for a bioinformatics research group at the University of Malawi; Majuto Manyilizu for a computation and modelling research group at the University of Dodoma, Tanzania; Jane Namukobe for a natural products research group at Makerere University, Uganda; Adenike Olaseinde for a materials science research group at the Federal University of Technology in Akure, Nigeria; and Jane Tanner for a surface water/groundwater interaction research group at Rhodes University, South Africa.

Dr. Tanner reflected on RISE’s role throughout her career: “It was a stimulating experience to be a student during the foundational phase of RISE, and it’s even more exciting to be able to contribute, as a graduate, to building the next phase of the project. I am encouraged to see that respected organizations like the AAS acknowledge the achievements of RISE and recognize its potential to significantly impact the African scientific landscape going forward.”

When RISE was created in 2008, the intention was to see it through its first phase with the help of the SIG secretariat in the U.S., and then transfer full ownership to the African continent. That transition is beginning. The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) of AAS, a platform for developing science strategies and supporting the development of sciences in Africa, is keen to lead the future of RISE and continue the great work of Prof. Phillip Griffiths and the team at SIG. AESA was established by AAS and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) with support from the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development. AESA’s mission is focused on supporting the best minds in Africa, working in conducive research environments, to implement programs that produce quality, relevant data, and innovations that have the potential to impact developmental challenges on the continent and globally.

© 2016 Sarah E. Rich

The meeting witnessed lively and optimistic discussions about future possibilities for RISE – in particular, an iteration that would support top RISE graduates and other African scholars to pursue postdoctoral fellowships. The words of Dr. Dorothy Nampanzira, who earned her PhD from Makerere University through the natural products network, capture the spirit that animates so many RISE scientists: "If you are given the opportunity to help your people, it is not only science; you put in an emotional part. You remember your grandmother, or uncle, or cousin, who died because of a certain problem, so when you're doing [science], you're doing it with passion."

SIG and its African partners continue to work hard toward the sustainability and continued vitality of what is widely regarded as one of Africa’s pioneering programs in science and education.

This article, written by the SIG staff, was originally published in AAS's Science*Policy*Africa Newsletter.

June 2016