Evelyn Gitau became hooked on chemistry in high school in Kenya. Alta Schutte remembers nearly losing her father to cardiovascular disease in the South African mining town where she grew up. Axel Ngonga, born in Cameroon, was fascinated as a child by ants, following them to figure out their patterns.
These sparks sent the three on a track to working with cellular immunology, web technologies and other specialized fields.
Gitau, Schutte and Ngonga are among a formidable group of Next Einstein fellows, 15 innovators who are paving the way to build Africa's expertise in science, technology, engineering and math with the help of governments, donors and academics.
State leaders, policy makers, global companies and some of the brightest minds on the continent gathered in Senegal this week to spotlight the fellows at the Next Einstein Forum, meant to establish funding, foster collaboration and find solutions for development in these four fields, known together as STEM. The forum also stressed that women's roles and opportunities in the fields need to be strengthened for Africa to realize its full potential.
African leaders, scientists, funders gather
The March 8-10 forum, initiated by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and to be held next in Rwanda in 2018, chose the African fellows so they could present their research, meet each other and draw from a vast network of nearly 1,000 people to advance their work and reduce isolation within their field. Here, they rubbed shoulders with Senegal President Macky Sall, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and research and science ministers from various countries as well as funders.
IBM, for example, has announced it will pick five of the fellows who will then visit global research labs and be paired with a researcher in a similar field for a week.
The institute's six centres, and the forum, are part of continent-wide efforts to combat Africa's brain drain by encouraging scientists to contribute to improving the continent, or to return to help build the fields. Each centre has the support of the government, academia and funders.
"Everything we are doing is to provide, and to create the right environment for the next Einstein to emerge from Africa," said Thierry Zomahoun, chairman for the Forum and President and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. The parallel goal is to bring more women into these fields, he said.
Continent's potential in future scientists
The challenges are great, including the need to improve education, funding, infrastructure, research opportunities and laboratories in Africa.
Gitau, Schutte and Ngonga embody the continent's potential.
Schutte said she was fortunate to be in a family interested in sciences — her three older brothers all studied science fields.
She is a cardiovascular physiologist, a subject close to home. Schutte's grandfather died from cardiovascular disease when her father was young, and her own father nearly died when she was only 4 years old. He lived to see her give her inaugural lecture as a full professor, she said.
Schutte has moved on to focus on hypertension, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke, and her research centred on black populations.
In Africa, 46 per cent of people over 25 have hypertension, she said.
"It's very relevant now that we are getting over many infectious diseases," to focus on this more silent killer, she said. "With Westernized food and lifestyles, it's really becoming a problem."
She is now heading up the Hypertension in Africa Research Team from South Africa's North-West University and working on a 20-year study to find its predictors. She also helped inform legislation passed by South Africa that in June will require reduced sodium in foods.
At the forum, she's said the connections have been exciting.
"Cross-disciplinary science is the way to go" to grow Africa's potential, Schutte said. She and Ngonga have already started collaboration discussions.
Ngonga's father was an engineer and his mother a math teacher. He left to study at university in Germany, and has been overseas since, researching semantic web technologies and big data processing in an environment that has given him the resources to thrive.
He envisions developing more efficient, cost-effective approaches so people can better process large amounts of data — technology that could help improve education in Africa.
Gitau, who specializes in cellular immunology and has helped in developing a rapid malaria test, said it is important for her to be in Africa for her work, though it has been a challenge to get all the equipment needed.
She had been conducting research in the UK. Samples would be frozen and shipped to her from Kenya.
"Would biomarkers behave the same in fresh samples?" she wondered. So she returned to Kenya and has since worked in the coastal town of Kilifi, where she has helped lobby for important lab equipment that also needs experienced engineers.
50% of infections in Africa undiagnosed
Gitau is now working on creating a rapid diagnostic test for multiple infections with a simple drop of blood, so malnourished children can be more quickly and effectively treated. Fifty per cent of infections in Africa remain undiagnosed, she said, and unneeded treatment and numerous tests are costly.
She also serves in Nairobi as the African Academy of Science's program manager and assists a mentorship program in Kenya that pairs girls with young female high school students on science projects.
Her path has been unusual in Kenya, where many families during her youth chose marriage for their daughters over education.
"I'm a benefactor of a father who broke away from the mould to be sure my sister and I got equitable education," Gitau said.
She said there is opportunity to close the gender imbalance as the continent starts to build its STEM field potential.
"Africa might be luckier going forward," she said. "Here we have to discuss and address deep, serious social challenges, and from there we can leap."