ICTPs' Postgraduate Diploma Programme has welcomed 1167 students from all across the developing world to ICTP since it was founded in 1991, 46 of whom from Sudan. The programme aims to bridge the gap between the teaching levels in the students’ countries of origin and the requirements of higher education facilities across the world. ICTP actively works to include female students in the programme, and 29 % of past diploma students have been female.
Roaa Omer, a Sudanese student among the recent graduates of the Postgraduate Diploma Programme, talks about her fascination with the interface between physics and biology.
Where do you come from?
I'm from the west of Sudan, and I grew up in my country. I did my Bachelor’s degree there, graduated in 2017, and did my Master’s degree in Cameroon. After that, I was teaching in my country for a couple of years, and then I came to ICTP in the Qualitative Life Sciences section to study for the diploma.
When did you first discover that you were interested in physics?
It’s a funny story, because when I entered my Bachelor’s degree, we studied biology, physics and chemistry. After that, you had to choose which field you wanted to go into. During that time, I was more interested in the biological field, so I wanted to go into biology. But then, when learning some physics, I realized that physics is more interesting because it describes very complex biological systems with very elegant and simple equations. From that time, my interest switched from biology to physics.
Biologists are always struggling to understand how complex systems work, but physicists have a unique way of understanding and simplifying things, thinking about how to really understand and go deeper into a complex system, using a very simple, understandable model.
Could you talk a bit about some challenges that researchers in Sudan face?
A while ago, it was very challenging for girls to do postgraduate studies in Sudan. There is a lot of social pressure on woman to get married, and this is very challenging. It is a general challenge for whatever career you want to follow. If you really follow your dreams, at the same time you also have to adapt to your community, and first, you have to prove that you are good enough.
You cannot live in a community without really following its traditions, but physics itself needs a lot of time, you have really to spend the time to understand what you are doing. Researchers also need resources. In Sudan, you cannot do really multidisciplinary research, we are really limited by resources and the education level is not really advanced, especially now we are facing the crisis after the revolution. And now, the war is going on. Also, to travel, you have to have permission from your family, and if you are married, you have to have the agreement of your husband. It's really very challenging for women in Sudan to continue in physics.
How did your family respond to you coming here?
This all started when I decided to do my first master abroad. I had to have a conversation with my family, to convince them. The main problem they had was that it is not secure enough to go alone, they cared that I might not be okay, saying “You're young, how can you deal with a very different community?” The challenge was really to convince them. I knew a girl who had already graduated from a programme abroad, and I let my father talk to her. She told him her story, how things went smoothly, and that she learned a lot. So, he understood that this is manageable.
What is your diploma thesis about?
I’m working in biological systems with Jacopo Grilli. We are modeling a bacterial phenomenon called quorum sensing. Basically, we are working in the physiology of bacterial signaling, trying to develop a simple model that can understand physiological parameters, and show how bacteria are communicating with each other. Quorum sensing is a cell to cell communication process. The basic idea is that the bacteria have the properties of producing signals as a kind of chemical. The bacterial system has both receptor and sender parts. They have a calling system, where they produce signals, and at the same time they have receptors, which can receive the signals. I’m studying this sensing phenomenon.
How has doing the diploma affected you?
The diploma is filling the gap between my undergraduate study and the level I need to be at to continue. It is the kind of program that brings different students from different backgrounds, especially from developing countries, to prepare them to match the requirements of high-level research. It taught the kinds of techniques and skills we missed back in our countries, so that we could catch up or at least handle the differences as we go on to enter the European or American systems. It built on what we have already, and opened our eyes to all different kinds of fields. For example, back in my country, no-one does the kind of studies we do in Quantitative Life Sciences, this is not available at all. Jumping from my previous degrees to study complex systems at a high level would be very challenging.
What are you doing next?
I'm going to do my PhD at SISSA, Trieste, in the physics and chemistry of biological systems. So finally, I'm going to combine my three favorite subjects.
What would you say were the strengths of the postgraduate program?
It was good in that whatever I needed, I found, in terms of facilities. The professors were always willing to help, their doors always open. And whatever stupid question I had, I could ask it, frankly. It was challenging to do a lot of advanced courses, and I had to really manage my time. So, the challenge is that it's very intense. One of the very stressful and challenging conditions of the diploma is that you have to pass all your classes, and I had some gaps in my knowledge. The staff give you a lot, but also expect a lot in return.
What would you say was the biggest gap in your knowledge?
Some of the theory. For example, the biggest challenge for me was the course on probability and information theory. I hadn't experienced such a course before in my life, and it was a bit challenging. But I learned a lot at the end thanks to Prof. Matteo Marsili.
Where do you see yourself going in the next 5-10 years?
10 years is a very long time! I have a dream that I really want to help and have an impact on my community, especially in research. We always have this lag in Sudan, that either there is money and there are no expertise, or there are expertise and no money.
I want to have my own research group back in Sudan in such a way that it is open and connected with the rest of the world. I don’t want to really spend all my life traveling from country to country, that's a big thing. I would love to use whatever knowledge I can to help at least a fraction of my people, and establish this type of research back in my country in one of the universities. It is a long-term dream. It's not easy, but I will try my best to do it.