Date: August 4, 2013

VictoriaFalls scaled400300 captionedA joint Rutgers University-Princeton University Nanotechnology for Clean Energy graduate training program is providing students with the opportunity to develop relationships with noted institutions and researchers in Africa.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) program is a five-year, $3 million venture focusing on nanoscale energy technology development with a special emphasis on educational exchange between U.S. and African universities. Recently, some students have taken advantage of this program by visiting and collaborating with their African counterparts as they pursue their research.

Rutgers Chemistry and Chemical Biology graduate student, Aleksandra Biedron of Union, recently spent time in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Biedron was selected to participate in the first Materials Research School of the Joint U.S.-Africa Materials Institute (JUAMI) held at Addis Ababa University. The program brought together approximately 50 graduate students and early-career materials researchers from across the United States and East Africa, as well as 15 internationally recognized instructors, for two weeks of lectures, problem solving, and cultural exchange.

“I was interested in meeting young African scientists to discuss energy materials, a universal concern, which is relevant to my research in ionic liquids,” said Biedron, a graduate of Livingston High School. “I was also excited to see Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and experience the culture and historical attractions.”

A cornerstone of the Nanotechnology for Clean Energy IGERT program is having the students apply their training in a dynamic educational exchange program with African institutions, promoting development of the students’ global awareness and understanding of the challenges involved in global scientific and economic development. In Addis Ababa, Biedron quickly noticed how different the scope of research was between the African scientists and their international counterparts.

“The African scientists’ research was really solution-based,” said Biedron. “They were looking at how they could use their natural resources to solve some of their region’s most pressing issues, not only for energy, but also health, clean water, and housing. You don’t really see that as much in the U.S. because we are already thinking about the future, 10 or 20 years from now.”

This is the fourth consecutive academic year that IGERT trainees have been given the opportunity to travel to Africa. In December 2011, Biedron and six other IGERT trainees traveled to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to attend the 6th International Conference of the Africa Materials Research Society along with Chemistry Professors Jing Li and Eric Garfunkel. Garfunkel served as Chair of the International Advisory Committee for the conference and is currently leading Rutgers’ materials related exchange efforts with Africa.

At the conference, the IGERT trainees presented their research to a diverse group of more than 300 scientists from around the world.

In the future, Rutgers students will have even more opportunities to collaborate with African scientists. Having seen the positive effects of the IGERT program’s African component, Garfunkel and colleagues recently founded the Rutgers Institute for Science and Technology Leadership in Africa (RISTLA). Established to foster science and technology research collaboration and scholarly exchange between Rutgers and African institutions, Garfunkel envisions RISTLA as a boon for both Rutgers students and their African counterparts.

“The overall goal of evolving RISTLA programs is twofold: We are looking to focus on capacity building in Africa through education of their workforce, while also teaching U.S. students how to address global problems outside the United States,” Garfunkel said. Exposure to African cultures and scientific institutions is already helping to give Rutgers students a broader worldview. “Collaboration is always a good thing. You have more perspectives, resources, and solutions to the same problem,” said Biedron, adding that after two trips to Africa, she is interested in future collaborations.

“Going to Africa was great,” Biedron said. “I had a chance to see what it’s like over there and to interact with the people. Now I’d feel comfortable going for a long-term internship in Africa.”

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