Omololu Akin-Ojo is on a mission to turn Rwanda into a hub for physics.
A condensed matter physicist from Nigeria, Akin-Ojo is the first director for the East African Institute for Fundamental Research (EAIFR) in Kigali, Rwanda.
He will lead the new institute as it enters its most crucial phase: hiring full-time researchers and recruiting students for its masters and doctoral programs in physics and mathematics.
A master’s degree in physics recipient from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Delaware, USA, Akin-Ojo, as a university student in Nigeria in the 1990s, learned to write computer code by hand, without ever having the chance to put the code into a computer.
Akin-Ojo would then be advised by his father, a physicist to seek further education abroad. He moved to the U.S. and studied condensed matter physics at the University of Delaware.
In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Akin-Ojo said he resolved to return to Africa to stem the brain of the continent’s brightest minds. That was after spending 14 years working in the U.S. and Europe.
“I always knew I was coming back to Africa,” he stated.
Akin-Ojo said he specialized in theoretical physics so that the lack of experimental equipment in Nigeria and Africa as a whole wouldn’t stop him from his research when he returned.
Akin-Ojo was made an assistant professor at the African University of Science and Technology in Nigeria in 2012. The founding father of EAIFR now hopes to create an international hub for advanced research, beginning with theoretical physics.
“…I don’t expect governments like the U.S. to put a lot of money into problems that are affecting folks in Africa. I expect the governments in Africa to put a lot of money into the problems affecting their people,” he told Quanta Magazine.
Akin-Ojo continued: “When I was in the U.S., you know everybody was talking about cancer research, so I got into working on cisplatin, an anti-cancer drug. The same tools for the work with cisplatin can be used to work with drugs related to neglected tropical diseases.
“Now I’ve moved back to Africa, I’m thinking of problems that face people here, problems related to antibiotic resistance or tuberculosis, for example. It’d be good if African governments realized this and funded science more. I don’t think they see it as essential unless there’s a crisis — like Ebola.”
At EAIFR scientists are allowed to work on things that they want to work on. “They’re pretty much free to do that,” Akin-Ojo told Quanta Magazine.
“Right now we have somebody working on cosmology, we have someone working on high-energy physics phenomenology, there are two of us working in condensed matter physics, and we are trying to bring somebody in to work in geophysics.”
He said many African students are interested in solving problems that they see every day: lack of energy, lack of clean water, climate change.
Opened in 2018, EAIFR is located at the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology in Kigali which was once a military academy.
It is a partner institute of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and is also a Category 2 UNESCO institute.
ICTP-EAIFR has been developed in response to a need in Rwanda and the region for both masters and doctoral degrees in various areas of physics, both fundamental and applied. It is planned that at any given time there will be 50 or more MSc students while the Ph.D. program is still to be determined.
The institute will host approximately five scientific meetings or schools a year, some of those in collaboration with the ICTP. Furthermore, it is expected to act as a node for various physics networks in Africa.
“I needed to come back to help to develop this kind of research, to help to build science capacity in Africa,” Akin-Ojo stated.