Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vast and Fertile Ground in Africa for Science to Take Root

He might have been content simply to teach thousands of university students in Uganda how to use computers, assemble them into networks, manage them and write basic software programs. In a poor African country with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations and rising Internet use, that alone would have been an enormous achievement.

But Venansius Baryamureeba had bigger ideas. In 2005, when he returned home with a doctorate from the University of Bergen in Norway, he was just one of a handful of computer scientists in Uganda. And his timing was right. The largely agricultural economy had been growing by about 7 percent annually, propelling an enormous expansion of the upper middle class and the urban elite’s aspirations for advanced training in science and engineering.

Emboldened by Uganda’s relative peace and prosperity, Dr. Baryamureeba founded a new college that includes departments of computer science and computer engineering at creaky Makerere University, in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. At the top of a hill near the university’s entrance, overlooking the derelict law school to one side and a derelict school mosque to the other, two gleaming glass buildings went up seemingly without a hitch. So many undergraduates swarmed them that the faculty held classes at midnight to accommodate them.

Dr. Baryamureeba wanted more than a vocational school; he also created a graduate program he hoped would someday turn out dozens of Ph.D. scientists who would themselves become college professors and help push the boundaries of global research.

Improbably, his vision is gaining traction at Makerere. Young homegrown scientists there are now nearing completion of their Ph.D.’s. And faculty members are carrying out cutting-edge experiments. They are seeking to endow cellphones with the “intelligence,” embedded in tiny software programs animated by mathematical algorithms, to identify diseases in crops or malaria in a person’s bloodstream.

Ernest Mwebaze, a doctoral student and lecturer, said there are still serious obstacles to pursuing such research in Uganda, including unreliable Internet service and power failures. But he also said the potential upside is huge.

“Uganda offers several unique research challenges and problems whose solutions can actually have a greater marginal benefit than, say, solutions to problems in Europe,” he said.

Each Monday, in a laboratory of thrumming computers, Mr. Mwebaze teaches a small class on artificial intelligence to 10 graduate students, highlighting this esoteric field, the subject of his doctorate research. read the entire story

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