Partnership sending UMN members to African math institute

The School of Mathematics recently partnered with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and will send a professor and student to Africa.

Kait Ecker

Professors and graduate students from the University of Minnesota will soon teach a course in Africa as the result of a new international partnership. 

The University’s School of Mathematics announced its partnership with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Next Einstein Initiative last week. Under the partnership, one professor and a graduate student will go each year to an AIMS center and teach a three-week course in Africa. It will also support the University in recruiting AIMS students into University graduate programs.

Math department head Peter Olver was a key figure in attaining the partnership. He said the program will help bridge the international divide between the U.S. and Africa.

“This is a way of bringing in underrepresented groups from other parts of the world,” said Olver.

Before doing her postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota, Isabelle Kemajou-Brown discovered her love for financial mathematics at the AIMS-NEI. Kemajou-Brown, now a professor at Morgan State University in Maryland, credits AIMS with helping her start her career. 

“My introduction to anything I’m doing now is from AIMS,” Kemajou-Brown said. “AIMS has gotten me where I am today.”

Kemajou-Brown, who grew up in Cameroon, said she sometimes experienced culture shock when she first came to the United States. She said it’s important for University faculty to understand cultural differences as the partnership takes off.

“It was very, very tough for me at the beginning when I came because sometimes when you’re talking to people, they expect you to be looking into their eyes when you are speaking,” Kemajou-Brown said. “Sometimes it isn’t easy for somebody who has never been used to that.”

Kemajou-Brown is thrilled about the partnership. It’s a great opportunity for University recruitment because AIMS-NEI selects some of the most talented students in Africa through a highly complex selection process, she said.

African students attend AIMS-NEI for extra training after their bachelor’s degree, either to prepare for graduate school or to enhance the educational infrastructure in their country, Olver said.

“[AIMS-NEI brings] students from all over Africa with kind of spotty education,” Olver said. “Most of those students would not be able to succeed in a graduate program in a place like Minnesota, so the AIMS degree is kind of a way of bringing them up to speed.”

Olver taught at AIMS in 2006. “The students were just amazing. I was amazed at how motivated they were, how smart they were,” he said.

The first AIMS center was founded in 2003 in South Africa, and now there are six AIMS centers across Africa. 

The University is one of three full academic partners AIMS-NEI has in the U.S. The others are the University of Chicago and Michigan State University, Nathalie Munyampenda, director of communications and public engagement for AIMS, wrote in an email to the Minnesota Daily. 

The University has several hundred partnerships, but extensively contracted partnerships between institutions like the math department and AIMS-NEI are uncommon, said Molly Portz, assistant dean of the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance. 

Under the contract, the University will pay AIMS-NEI an annual $25,000 affiliation fee, which will be funded by the College of Science and Engineering and the math department. 

The AIMS graduates would be fully funded as Ph.D. students in the math department, he said. University members said the partnership is an exciting venture.   

“It’s an opportunity to increase our diversity in terms of bringing African students to the University, and also having experience with African institutions,” Portz said. “Because at the end of the day, these partnerships deepen understanding and learning, whether it’s social, cultural or academic.”