Date: March 17, 2014

AddisSix c v2Rutgers University Chemistry Associate Professor Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa grew up in Ethiopia, but a recent trip to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and the political capital of Africa, was still an eye opening experience.

“Many African countries are experiencing rapid population growth, and some of the fastest growing economies are also in Africa,” said Asefa, who returned to his native country with Rutgers colleagues for an important international meeting. “There is tremendous opportunity not just for Africans, but also for the whole world, including the U.S., to engage in the rise and development of Africa. The continent needs investment in education, infrastructure, manufacturing and human capital to ensure success in the future.”

Encouraging such partnerships was the focus of the 7th International Conference of the Africa Materials Research Society, held in the African Union Conference Center in Addis Ababa, and co-chaired by Professor Teketel Yohannes Anshebo of Addis Ababa University and Rutgers Chemistry Professor Eric Garfunkel. The conference and the academic exchanges have benefited from the strong support of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Materials Research Society (MRS).

“Scientists and engineers can play critical roles in the development process that is taking place in Africa,” said Garfunkel, who has co-chaired the past two Africa MRS conferences. “Our African counterparts are requesting more international involvement as the development of materials technologies have tremendous impact in energy, construction, health, transportation, and a variety of other critical sectors in Africa. Our joint conferences and academic exchanges can be very rewarding for both sides.”

California Institute of Technology Professor Robert H. Grubbs, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 2005, was the plenary speaker for the conference, which was attended by some 300 scientists from across Africa and around the world. Rutgers Chemistry Professor Kathryn Uhrich, also participated, presenting the results of her polymer research, and leading a discussion on women in science.

“The workshop on women in science was a first for the society and the conference,” said Uhrich. “It offered an opportunity for the younger scientists to see some of the success women can achieve. It was a good start, but we really just touched the tip of the iceberg. I have stayed in contact with some of the younger women who participated in the workshop regarding graduate school and career opportunities, so we have some momentum to build on.”

Rutgers Chemistry graduate student Aleksandra Biedron was one of the young scientists to attend the conference. “It was a great opportunity to meet and talk to young Africans about my research, and to find out what we have in common,” said Biedron. “I also enjoyed the opportunity to learn from the other women and discuss the challenges we face. I learned quite a bit about topics that are different from my current research, but still in the general area of materials. I am now considering a possible internship in Africa so the visit was also beneficial in that respect as well.”

Rutgers has already hosted over two dozen African scientists and engineers over the past three years, including John Obayemi, a doctorate student studying at the new African University of Science and Technology (AUST) in Abuja, Nigeria. Obayemi presented the results of his research experience in Uhrich's lab at the Africa MRS conference. Rutgers Chemistry hopes to grow this exchange program over the next few years, and expand it further by partnering with other departments.

Garfunkel is working with colleagues at Rutgers and Princeton to create the Pan African Materials Institute (PAMI) with seed funding from the World Bank and Carnegie Foundation. The purpose of PAMI is to develop Africa’s ability to add value to materials and mineral resources.

“PAMI is coordinating the training of Africans through short courses and graduate degree and doctorate programs, supplemented by state-of-the-art distance learning and laboratory access techniques,” Garfunkel said. “PAMI faculty and students will also engage in interdisciplinary research that will help address African needs in health, energy, water and affordable housing and infrastructure.”

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