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Reflection on the 9th International Conference of the African Materials Research Society

January 23, 2018

Dr. Stan Meiburg, Director of the Wake Forest Sustainability Graduate Program traveled to Botswana to attend the 9th International Conference of the African Materials Research Society on December 10-15. Meiburg shares the following thoughts and reflections about the conference below. 

Do you know where the country of Botswana is?  I did not, but now do, as in early December I attended the 9th International Conference of the African Materials Research Society in Gaborone, Botswana. Botswana is located north of South Africa, with a population of 2 million people of whom a third live in Gaborone, the capital city.

Five hundred delegates from 65 countries attended the conference, most from African nations but with a sizeable representation from the United States.  Most delegates were faculty and students in materials science, physics, and chemistry from around Africa, including Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Gambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Ivory Coast in addition to Botswana.  I participated at the invitation of Dr. Veronica Augustyn of NC State University, who asked me to speak about sustainability education and my experiences with EPA.

Speakers included Botswana’s Vice President, who described the need for Africa to invest more in scientific research and development, consider sustainability in materials science and train more women and girls in science, technology and mathematics.  He noted that Africa needs to train a million new Ph.D.’s and use the continent’s resources to create high value products to improve life.  The U.S Ambassador was also present and made brief remarks.

Meiburg (far right) pictured with other conference attendees.

The conference did not directly address the great strategic promise and dilemma of Africa–its relative abundance of mineral resources combined with an expected dramatic increase in population over the next 50 years–this reality was a strong undercurrent.  This promise and dilemma cuts across the entire African continent.  Given reasonable political stability, continued progress in combatting communicable diseases, and the absence of unforeseen climate change disruptions, Africa’s population is expected to increase from 1 billion to 3 billion people by 2060.  Other nations, especially China, are working to secure long term access to such resources as iron ore, non-ferrous metals, precious stones and rare earths, and conventional fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas).  The terms of trade for Africa and the nature of the education and development assistance provided by foreign capital can have a dramatic impact on Africa’s future.

While most presentations focused on cutting edge research, several targeted specific African problems, such as the use of locally available materials as soil enhancers, in water filtration and for biomedical purposes.  There was much discussion of advanced technologies for renewable energy (notwithstanding that one of Botswana’s chief resources is coal), including the use of organic and inorganic materials for solar power generation and electrical power storage.

Apart from the plenary sessions, the conference was organized into the following tracks:  Energy, Nanotechnology, Mining and Construction, Agriculture. Health, Water, Computational, and Education.  Professor Augustyn led the Education track; I gave a presentation on post-graduate Sustainability Education, with a particular emphasis on Wake Forest’s program and the significance of sustainability to Africa.  I also chaired another of the Education sessions and participated in a panel discussion on developing resilient international research networks.

Much of the conference’s value was in meeting new people and establishing new contacts.  Thanks to Dr. Abdou Lachgar, I have learned that some Wake Forest faculty engaged with AMRS in the past, and there may be opportunities for more engagement in the future.  Other schools’ involvement appears to depend significantly on relationships between individual faculty and African colleagues.  The most productive efforts, such as the SciBridge work championed by Professor Augustyn and the Joint US-Africa Materials Initiative (JUAMI), promote the development of indigenous African capability and connect U.S. graduate and undergraduate students directly with African counterparts.

This was my first trip to Southern Africa and it was a fascinating educational and cultural experience.  My hope is that this trip will lead to further opportunities for global partnerships for students and faculty at Wake Forest in this important part of the world.