When Dr. Marco Merkli agreed to teach a three-week course at Cameroon’s African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, scheduled to start in late February 2020, the mathematics and statistics professor had no idea the planet would soon become embroiled in a global pandemic.
“After a week and a half there, COVID-19 was popping up around the world, and people were saying the borders were going to be closed,” he said. “Just before I was scheduled to leave, the prime minister began asking all Canadians to come home.
“By mistake I had booked my ticket home for a day earlier than I should have and, luckily, I got out just in time. Another lecturer had intended to go visit family in Poland. He understood the dates correctly and stayed one more day, but by then the borders had shut down.”
The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS, is a pan-African network of centres of excellence, offering talented students from across the continent the opportunity to earn a master’s degree.
The concentrated program can be completed in one year and consists of three phases – skills, review and research.
During the first phase, students take compulsory courses, taught in three-week modular blocks. In the second, students select additional courses specializing in pure and applied math and theory and applications, as well as interdisciplinary topics such as financial math and climate and disease modelling.
During the final phase, students carry out individual research projects.
The course instructors and project supervisors come from various universities across Africa, and around the world, ensuring a high academic standard and promoting global postgraduate and research connections.
Memorandum of understanding
Currently, Memorial is not affiliated with the program, but Dr. Merkli hopes that will soon change.
“I first heard about the program from fellow math professors at other Canadian universities,” he said. “Since returning I contacted the AIMS co-ordinator for Canada and am now in the process of setting up a memorandum of understanding to make Memorial a part of AIMS that I hope will be signed shortly.”
This agreement would see Memorial cover the travel costs for one annual trip to Africa, enabling a university lecturer to teach at one of the five AIMS centres. AIMS covers the remaining costs.
Dr. Merkli’s travel expenses were covered by the Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences (AARMS), and he provided the organization with a report on his trip.
He taught his open quantum systems course, which Dr. Merkli says was a fascinating experience.
“I stayed at Limbe, a coastal town,” he said. “It has a temperature of around 35-37 degrees, day and night, and humidity is very high. Coming from a Canadian winter, this was a bit of a challenge for me.
“Luckily, our quarters and classrooms were air conditioned, however, electricity there is very unreliable, with at least 15-20 blackouts every day. The frequent power outages made the AC somewhat less effective. The food was at times somewhat challenging, I have to say, but they did have nice beer, and it was very affordable.”
Eager to learn
What impressed him the most, though, was his students.
Despite not having quite the same level of preparation as a typical graduate student in North America or Europe would have, Dr. Merkli says they were “extremely eager” to learn.
“I had students from seven different African countries and AIMS provides them with everything for free, including housing and travel,” he said. “That means the positions are very competitive and they select only the best. While the students may start at a lower level, they are incredibly diligent and really put in an effort. I think they profit quite a bit from this program.
“One difference I did notice is that they engage in dialogue,” he added. “Normally when we teach, when you ask students if they have questions or if they understand, or what the answer is to a problem, they sit there quite passively and just look at you or their phones. Over there the students were very spontaneous and open to interacting with their teachers.”
During his time in Cameroon, Dr. Merkli also participated in the centre’s event to mark International Women’s Day as the male representative on a panel that discussed “closing the gap” and issues surrounding gender inequality.
“Now that I have become involved in AIMS, I can begin supervising individual student research projects, and I do plan on going back,” he said. “The trip was a great experience. It’s very humbling to see how others live and how much effort they put in to getting an education in conditions that we would certainly not deem ideal.”