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ICTP Footprints:

Mathematicians teaching in Senegal

ICTP mathematicians recently taught a two-week course in Saint-Louis, Senegal
ICTP mathematicians recently taught a two-week course in Saint-Louis, Senegal

14/06/2017 - Trieste



In this new web feature, ICTP highlights outreach activities by its scientists, who frequently travel throughout the developing world to share their scientific expertise.  The “ICTP effect” is spread further through the Centre’s active program of training and education in support of sustainable science; more details about ICTP’s scientific outreach activities can be found here.

ICTP delegation: Stefano Luzzatto, Khadim Mbacke War, Lucia Simonelli, Oliver Butterley

Research section: Mathematics

Area of expertise: Dynamical systems

Recently seen in: Gaston Berger University (UGB), Saint-Louis, Senegal

Purpose: To teach and mentor students during an intensive, two-week course on Dynamical Systems and Ergodic Theory for Master's Students.

Why Senegal?

  Senegal _Web _Luzzatto _300
  ICTP mathematician Stefano Luzzatto instructing a group of Senegalese maths students
  Senegal _Web _Class _300
  The two-week course included lively discussions between lecturers and students
  Senegal _Web _Selfie _300
  Students and lecturers pause for a photo

"ICTP has had many links with Senegalese researchers for many years," says Luzzatto, an ICTP staff mathematician. Indeed, Several UGB professors have been ICTP Associates, a program of long-term research support and career development, including the Head of the Mathematics Department, Ngalla Djitte. Even the former Rector at UGB and current Minister of Research for Senegal, Mary Teuw Niane, was once an ICTP Associate.  

Khadim War, a UGB alumnus and one of the ICTP instructors, also has strong ties to ICTP: currently an ICTP visiting scientist, he recently graduated from the ICTP-SISSA PhD program, having done his dissertation with Luzzatto; before that, he was a star student in ICTP’s Postgraduate Diploma Programme in mathematics.

The specific collaboration between ICTP and Senegalese institutions in dynamical systems, which was the focus of the recent course, started in 2014, with a summer school, which created a lot of interest in the subject. Khadim says, “I noticed on Facebook that many students at UGB were sharing the lecture notes of Stefano Luzzatto on the department page." War and Luzzatto contacted Ngalla Djitte, who welcomed the idea of offering a course in dynamical systems. Support came from a grant given to the university by the World Bank, to help establish what is known as an African Center of Excellence. This helped make the course possible, as well as laying the basis for future expansion of opportunities to study dyamical systems at UGB.

Two weeks of dynamical systems seems did you manage? "The days were pretty packed, pretty intense," admits Lucia Simonelli, a post-doctoral fellow at ICTP. "We delivered lectures in the mornings, and then spent the afternoons doing problem sessions with the students." Luzzatto was at UGB for the first week, Butterley for the second, and Simonelli and War taught for the whole two weeks, during which the students had no other commitments.  

UGB’s language of instruction is French, and as Simonelli and Butterley, another post-doctoral fellow, are not fluent, War translated for them, alternating section by section. "Translated and improved," laughs Butterley. "It may not have been efficient but it had a few benefits," says Simonelli. "For one, we hope that some of the students will apply and come to the Diploma program like Khadim did, and some exposure to English beforehand might make that transition easier. The pace seemed beneficial, and they did know a bit of English, which came out as they grew more confident."

Side events: At a conference held recently in honor of recently passed mathematician and Fields Medalist Jean-Christophe Yoccoz, it was announced that part of Yoccoz's collection would be donated to the UGB Mathematics Library, in honor of his commitment to advancing mathematics worldwide. Simonelli and Butterley were on hand at the Paris conference to select books relating to dynamical systems in a memorial collection for the UGB students they had just finished teaching. "The donation of Jean-Christophe Yoccoz’s library could not come at a better time both from a symbolic as well as a practical level. It is an extremely generous gesture from his family and will without a doubt have a significant and lasting impact on the development of high-level research in dynamical systems and other areas of mathematics in Senegal," says Luzzatto.

Next steps: Thirty-eight students took the final exam at the end of the course, and eight of them did very well. "Many of the students really did a good job, there was definitely a sense that there is strong potential there, reflecting the strength of the existing faculty and program. I hope that some of these students will apply to the Diploma Program next year," says Luzzatto.

"I discussed quite a bit with Djitte and the Dean of the Faculty about ways to build on this experience, which we are all interested in doing," Luzzatto says. Future steps would likely involve more courses similar to this one. The structure of the UGB Master’s program is based on several options, or tracks, within a single program, which makes it quite flexible. The hope is that ICTP can help design and set up one or more new options for the program, helping coordinate courses in dynamical systems and possibly beyond. "The idea is to have world-class professors visit several times a year to give courses, and that can be an integral part of the new option in dynamical systems," says Simonelli. 

"Djitte is particularly keen to have a differential geometry course taught, along with qualitative theory of ordinary differential equations and some more specialised courses in dynamical systems. These will be coordinated by ICTP and taught initially by visiting professors, and in time hopefully more and more by Senegalese professors," says Luzzatto.

Final thoughts: Luzzatto made a point of thanking the other ICTP mathematicians: "I want to take this opportunity to recognize the absolutely fantastic work that Khadim, Lucia and Oliver did for the preparations and implementation of this activity. It was 100% team work in which they played an absolutely crucial role. Having them by my side, fully committed to the project, made me proud of what we are doing at ICTP and what we can achieve with young people like them.

Ngalla Djitte was also key to making the course happen. "The professors, the whole faculty at UGB were very welcoming," says War. This reception, agree the four mathematicians, was key to making the course a success. "They would come to say hi every day. They were very welcoming and kind," Simonelli says.

The ICTP mathematicians were equally impressed by the students. "They were very dedicated, and they studied really hard and performed very well," says Simonelli. War agrees: "They were pretty impressive, both in attitude and level."

--Kelsey Calhoun