Volunteering to help build science in Africa

By Jean Rizk

Volunteering to help African postgraduates with their dissertations is one of the best life decisions I’ve made. What a tremendous and humbling experience!

I’m a 3rd year PhD student in Statistics at University of Limerick, Ireland.  I’m currently writing this piece from Cameroon, a tropical country in central Africa. I’m volunteering as a tutor in a coastal town called Limbe. Here, a group of young and passionate African mathematicians and physicists are trying to overcome the obstacles of life to prove that they can be great scientists and efficient contributors to the African society.

The 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!


Students wearing AIMS t-shirts with the logo “#balance for better” to support African women in STEM.

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 lecturers here are also 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 (RSS) 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 permanent tutors on site, is to be the link between the students and their supervisors and make sure that the communication between them is clear and ongoing. I also follow up on the students’ progress, I make sure they meet deadlines efficiently, and I guide them in the thesis writeup, as well as coding when needed.  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.

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 are currently running a Three Minute Thesis competition, where students can talk about their essay projects in just three minutes. We are running the event every Saturday for three weeks. The finalists will compete at the end of May, and three winners will be crowned.


Heat 1 winners of the 3MT competition at AIMS-Cameroon.

Apart from research, we also exercise. I’m a CrossFit trainer myself and I’m currently running a fitness club to train the students as well as the tutors. The workouts involve functional movements that train individuals not only to be fit and healthy but also to be strong members of society. I teach them lifting techniques using stones and rocks. I also train them on how to lift and carry each other. This will teach them how to carry other people in emergency situations.


From the morning training sessions with AIMS-Cameroon students.

I am delighted to have had this opportunity, especially that is through the RSS. This experience has so far given me a great sense of fulfilment, appreciation and connectedness.  Although it has been challenging, but it taught me to appreciate many things in life, such as simply the washer machine (I handwash my clothes), 24/7 electricity and internet (power cut is always expected), the shower (I bucket shower when the water is 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 can make a difference in these people’s lives, at least as big as the difference they have already 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 coming back to volunteer in this place again!

Jean Rizk is a  3rd year PhD student in Statistics at University of Limerick – Ireland.



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