Looking for Africa’s next Einstein

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Story highlights

The first 'Next Einstein Forum' took place in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2016

It was conceived to 'bring young African scientists out of the shadows'

Dakar, Senegal CNN  — 

In the arid outskirts of Senegal’s capital, Dakar, a state-of-the-art conference center rose up out of the dust in just 11 months.

The Abdou Diouf de Diamniadio International Conference Center, a showcase of innovative design and technology, played host last week to 1000 scientists, policy makers, private sector and civil society representatives, from some 80 countries, in a three-day showcase of scientific talent from across the African continent.

Thierry Zomahoun, president and CEO of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which organized the inaugural Next Einstein Forum (NEF) explained the concept to CNN saying: “Africa has a perception issue. The news is mostly about corruption, Boko Haram, or poverty. While we do not deny these challenges exist, we believe young Africans can make us dream and tackle the problems that Africa and the world have. It is time to bring young African scientists out of the shadows.”

Those dream-weavers, or ‘next Einsteins’, are 15 world class researchers under the age of 42. Their work covers everything from urban health to space exploration, solving today’s problems (HIV, Tuberculosis, lack of transport infrastructure or hazardous household goods) and conjuring up ideas for future challenges.

Egyptian chemist Ghada Bassioni, for example, talked about how adventures in her own kitchen led her to expose the harmful effects of household aluminum on human health.

“As I wrapped up my delicious lamb casserole and put it in the oven I was like, is this really safe? Am I consuming aluminum that has leached into the food?”

Bassioni’s research led her to discover that scrubbing aluminum cookware (the most popular form of crockery in the developing world) could lead to aluminum leaching into the body to levels that exceed World Health Organization recommendations. She is now exploring how that accumulation could lead to diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s.

Alongside the Next Einstein Fellows like Bassioni, NEF has also selected 54 ambassadors, one from every African country, whose role is to champion African STEM globally.

As an ambassador, 29-year-old Tabot Arreytambe was selected to represent his native Cameroon, despite the fact that he lives and works in Abuja where he runs the EduTeens Science and Development Foundation. Founded only in December 2014, the foundation promotes STEM education and computer science among nine to 18-year-olds, focusing on girls and Nigeria’s minority communities. In 2015 Tabot won a Google Computer Science for High School grant.

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NEF’s 15 fellows and 54 ambassadors are just tip of the iceberg. Africa needs hundreds more - male and female - to truly set in motion a STEM and research revolution. Speaking to CNN about what it would take to create more Einstein, South African cosmologist Amanda Weltman said: “There is unbelievable talent here, but, I’m worried about the next generation.”

“What we don’t have is an African funding community. We need African grants,” Weltman said. “The question is can we find someone who thinks African science is worth investing it?”

Answering Weltman’s question, Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation of South Africa, Dr Molapo Qhobela, said the funding needed to come from governments but also increasingly the private sector. To reiterate why it was important, he finished by echoing Zamahoun’s words from the first day of NEF: “The most important thing we must do is invest in our young people because it is they who will come up with solutions for the future. We want to be in a situation where it is us who, for example, find the cure for Ebola, HIV or Tuberculosis, rather than wait for others to come in and help us.”