A mathematician’s passion for simplifying science to catalyse innovation


savannah

Savannah (1st from left), runner up during Famelab science communication competition in South Africa

My name is Savannah Nuwagaba, a PhD Student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Throughout my university education, I have majored in Mathematics where expression is mainly through equations and calculus; not words, and certainly not stories. I did not understand the power of storytelling until I went to South Africa, a country whose stories have shaped communities.

I first went to South Africa to pursue a Postgraduate Diploma in Mathematical Sciences at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).  In our intake year, we were 54 students from 34 African countries and had lecturers from all over the globe. I was particularly fascinated by our lecturers from Cambridge University who did not just teach us about what other people had done, said or thought, but made sure we were actively engaged in learning. Thanks to them, I came to greatly appreciate the importance of scientific evidence. Several pan African speakers also visited us from time to time while I was at AIMS and through them I realised that with knowledge, we can create the Africa we want to see.

After my completing my diploma at AIMS, i enrolled at Stellenbosch University for a Master’s degree in Biomathematics and stayed on for my PhD. During my early years at the university, I began to question how a mathematician like me could contribute to creating the Africa I want to see. The answer came in 2014 when I was invited to give a TEDx talk under the theme ‘Alone in a crowd’. TEDx talk is a platform for speakers to present great ideas in less than 18 minutes. I used the platform to share my life story and realised that my experiences enlightened both the audience and I. Listening to the enthusiastic feedback from parents and young girls who attended, I purposed not to stop telling stories. I had finally figured out how to make a contribution to my continent.

It was not long before another storytelling opportunity came along. I was nominated to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in Germany, the only meeting I know where you can find more than 30 Nobel Laureates from science fields. Listening to the laureate’s stories of why they had opted for careers in science, the ups and downs in their careers and how all these contributed to their ground breaking discoveries, I felt a strong sense of responsibility to share my own science stories with the public in a way they can easily understand. After all, a considerable amount of research funding comes from tax payers’ money.

Although I had previously participated in events where we had to share our science stories with non-specialist audiences, my experience in Lindau created a particular yearning to build my skills in public engagement with science. When I returned to South Africa, I attended as many trainings as my time and resources could allow.

One experience I will never forget was with Famelab, a science communication competition where a scientist is given three minutes to present a scientific idea to a diverse audience in a clear and charismatic way without compromising the scientific content. Through the training we received for the competition, by trainers from both South Africa and the UK, I learnt that we cannot achieve evidence-based policy making unless scientists are able to clearly communicate their evidence in a language that policy makers understand.

For the competition, I explained how evidence from a mathematical model suggested that the way we humans interact with our environment and its resultant effect on the temperature of the earth could determine whether our grandchildren will see some of the animals that we see today or only smaller versions of them, if at all. The first question I received from the audience was “How do you plan to disseminate this piece of evidence to different communities given that every human being contributes to how our environment reacts to our relationship with it?” I did not have a clear answer, but since we had a meeting with the Academy of Sciences of South Africa and the Department of Science and Technology the following week I responded that we could include discussions on how to accelerate the appreciation of science in Africa. Deep down, though, I knew it had to go beyond that.

Why do I share this story?

We often talk about creating people-centred innovative solutions and know that innovation springs from science whether formally or informally yet we still ask, “What can we do about it?” I believe that if scientists in Africa shared their evidence-based stories in ways that can be understood by all stakeholders including rural communities, policy and decision makers, we can create the Africa that we have always wanted to see. Knowledge is power! I therefore call upon graduate students of Africa, from  all scientific disciplines, to build their skills in translating scientific concepts for public consumption and join me in sharing our science for the betterment of the continent.

Savannah Nuwagaba graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Science with Education, Mathematics and Chemistry (majoring in mathematics); completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Mathematical Sciences at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences https://www.aims.ac.za/   and has majored in Biomathematics for her Master’s and PhD training. She can be reached at savannah@sun.ac.za or savannah@aims.ac.za.

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