In Kigali, the Next Einstein Forum initiative recently hosted the largest science conference in Africa to date. What does this conference mean to African scientists?
In Rwanda, in late March 2018, the air was shimmering with heat underneath the cupola of the Convention Centre. Here, Africa’s brightest minds came together to discuss the latest in research, share ideas, and exchange business cards. About 1,500 people attended the global science conference of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), including astrophysicists from Ethiopia, biologists from Zimbabwe, and nanotech researchers from Niger, while Nobel prize winners, publishers of leading scientific journals, and presidents of global research institutions mixed with the crowd. At the heart of the conference were the NEF Fellows, a group of outstanding young African scientists who received funding for their research projects.
What does the conference mean to these young Fellows? Speaking one-to-one, Tolulope Ologboji, one of the 16 honored NEF Fellows 2018, explained: “As an African scientist, I have always been outnumbered at conferences.” A geophysicist from Nigeria, Mr. Ologboji has been living and working in the US for the past ten years, as his East Coast accent betrays. “I feel so motivated by being here and meeting all these many other African scientists who do such great work. It really feels like a homecoming.”
The spirit of the Next Einstein Forum
What sets the largest pan-African science conference to date apart from other conferences around the globe? Maybe that a panel discussion about the gender gap in science and technology was opened with a poem? It was recited by Juliet Kego, an engineer, poet, and activist for the cause of encouraging women to enter STEM professions. “Today I will not bow,” the anaphora of her poem, resonated with the audience in the packed Gasabo plenary hall at the Convention Centre. And when she began to sing Amazing Grace, everyone stood up to join her in singing, and swaying along.
“This is also about a very special spirit,” commented Aku Kwamie, a Ghanaian health scientist and herself a NEF Fellow. “It’s a real spirit of looking to the future saying that Africans are completely capable of coming up with our own solutions of understanding our problems. But it’s also about that spirit of family and that spirit of oneness.”
The Nigerian physician Tolullah Oni talks about her experiences as a NEF fellow.
The first NEF Forum took place in Dakar, Senegal, in 2016. The enormous progress made since was demonstrated, for instance, by the Nigerian doctor and epidemiologist Tolullah Oni, who was inundated with requests for meetings. The best time to meet with her would be during her 6am morning run, she answered with a wink. Back in Dakar in 2016, Ms. Oni was one of the first Fellows on stage for a Spotlight Session, a key format at NEF Global Gatherings, in which scientists have only a few minutes to convince the audience of the ingenuity of their research. Her pitch in 2016 was about the necessity to establish a pan-African public health research group.
“ When I left the stage, I realized that I had just presented my plan to hundreds of people. So I told myself there was no way back now. ”
Two years later, and Ms. Oni’s research group has been set up. In the scientific community, she is more in demand than ever before. Following the Global Gathering in Kigali, her next destination was a meeting in Oxford in the United Kingdom.