Liliana Mammino: Research and Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Liliana Mammino: Research and Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Author: Vera Köster

Professor Liliana Mammino, University of Venda, Thohoyandou, South Africa, spoke to Dr. Vera Köster for ChemViews Magazine about promoting the development of computational chemistry in Africa, the importance of language and visualization as teaching tools, and her experiences of teaching chemistry in several African nations like Somalia, Zambia, Lesotho, South Africa.

What made you move from Italy to Russia and then to Africa?

When I started at the University of Pisa, Italy, I had also been accepted at Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa. Our internal chemistry tutor in that academic year (1966–1967) had just come back from a one-year placement at Moscow State University, Russia. He was quite enthusiastic about his experience there, above all in terms of the excitement at being part of a broad international community of students in a unique environment. This made me wish to have a similar experience. That is why, at the end of my fourth year, I applied for an exchange bursary for a similar placement. So I went to Moscow.

As for going to Africa, this was a response to a youthful dream. I wished to work in a developing country for a couple of years after graduating from the five-year degree programme of the Italian system in those times, and I mentioned it to my supervisor. In that period, the Italian government was starting a cooperative project with the National University of Somalia, and my supervisor helped me get in contact with the people responsible for chemistry. After being interviewed, I was among those selected. I spent three semesters in Somalia and it was enough for me to fall in love with Africa. I use the term “fall in love” because it is not easy to pinpoint specific reasons. Maybe the fact that students in that university were very keen to learn fascinated me a lot. The resulting interactions with the students added to the “fascination”, as teaching and learning was really a common, shared and continuous effort. Lots of other things were also fascinating: the novelty of encountering other cultures, the landscape, the space … But when I try to rationalize it, I am aware that there is much more, that cannot be expressed through a list of reasons.

After I came back from my time in Somalia, I went to Moscow for my Ph.D. studies. After that, I had two dreams: writing my own chemistry textbook for schools and going back to Africa for a few years. Both were realized; however, the “few” years in Africa became many.

You contributed to initiatives to promote the development of computational chemistry in Sub-Saharan Africa. Where did this idea come from?

Computational chemistry has been developing fast in all continents, except in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is important to try and narrow the current huge gap between Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world.

Computational chemistry covers interesting interfaces with research already ongoing in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as the diffuse research on natural products.
The possibility of doing computational studies on biologically active molecules that are isolated from plants utilized in traditional medicine could help retain more stages of drug development in the continent. Other investigations in organic or inorganic chemistry would benefit from the information and interpretations that computational chemistry can provide. Several countries are now encouraging the development of research in nanotechnology, and this requires the study of molecules and their assembly, which relies on computational chemistry. Industry may require the design of substances for specific purposes, e.g., new catalysts, and this also requires computational chemistry.

So what did you do?

From my side, the beginning was quite cautious: I presented a paper on the importance of developing theoretical/computational chemistry in African universities at the Fifth International Chemistry Conference in Africa which took place in Gaborone, Botswana, in 1992. The day before the presentation, I had the lucky chance to meet Professor Geoffrey Kamau from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. He came to my presentation and, at the end, he asked me whether that was meant to be “just a nice presentation” or whether I was ready to do something. Of course, the idea of doing something was quite appealing. So, we started with the idea of organizing what we called Theoretical Chemistry Workshops in Africa.

The first three Theoretical Chemistry Workshops in Africa were held in Nairobi, thanks to the initiative and exceptional organization of Professor Kamau and his colleagues. The following ones were held in other African countries. From the seventh one, they were turned into conferences. The tenth one will be held in my University, 6–11 April 2014.

Why were these so important?

Workshops and conferences are important to disseminate information and stimulate awareness. But the key issue for building capacity is training. Unfortunately, too many chemistry students think that computational chemistry, and physical chemistry in general, are too difficult because of the extensive presence of mathematics.

Only in 2004, did I get the first postgraduate student who chose computational chemistry for his research area. With this, I was stimulated to increase research capacity at the University of Venda, and I involved the student in the process as part of his training. He did all his postgraduate studies, that is, “Honors”, M.Sc., and Ph.D., in this field, showing high dedication and gradually growing into a fully independent researcher. Now I have two M.Sc. students, who are close to completing and planning to start their Ph.D. studies in the next months. One of them is a young lady from Venda, the area where the university is located, the other one is from DR Congo.

I could take more students from other African countries and train them not only to be computational chemists, but to be able, in turn, to build capacity and train others, and to be able to do this also in situations with limited resources because my personal experience has taught me how to do it. The main difficulty is finding bursaries for them to come to my university.

What are your experiences with the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa?

It is not easy to summarize the many aspects of my long experience in Sub-Saharan Africa. I will briefly mention only few of them.

There are the challenges of having to “invent” approaches to ensure the quality of training despite the inadequate facilities that are available. Challenges stimulate creativity; force one to be professionally active.

There is the positive response from students, the freedom and extent of the interactions with them, which constitute wonderful opportunities to turn teaching and learning into a continuous discovery.

There is the satisfaction of having initiated and developed a research area, computational chemistry, in an institution, the University of Venda, where it was not present. Among the satisfying milestones are: the publication of the first article on our research; the completion of the M.Sc. and, subsequently, Ph.D. studies of the first student who chose this field, who was also the first Ph.D. student in chemistry since the University was founded; the expansion of the group, with the current presence of two postgraduate students; and the hope of getting more in the next years.

What were main challenges for you?

Specifically in my situation as a “woman in chemistry”, the experiences have been mixed. For years, there has been an (unofficial) effective lack of confidence with regard to a woman taking the initiative, especially in an area that too many view as basically “male” because of the extensive presence of mathematics. This has inhibited any capacity building in the institutions where I worked previously, and delayed the initialization of capacity building in my current institution. Perseverance has eventually enabled the situation to outgrow such drawbacks.

The fact that I have been, and still am, the only female lecturer in the department of chemistry might have had some weight in prompting the initial lack of confidence. On the other hand, the presence of a female lecturer has helped transmit important messages to students. There have been female students who used me as an example when presenting choices such as physical chemistry to parents or relatives, who feared that it would be too difficult for a woman. For these students, saying that “my physical chemistry teacher is a woman” became a weighty argument in their favor.

The attitude of the young generation appears to be quite positive, increasingly overcoming various gender barriers. I find it particularly moving when a male student tells me that he considers me as a role model. It has happened a number of times, and it testifies that a major message has been fully absorbed: in the class, when we do research, or we consider any type of professional issue, there is no gender difference, we all work together.

The growth of a consciousness free of gender-barrier feelings has been particularly evident in a recent (2013) crisis, when I was the object of a decision that had all the characteristics of gender discrimination by some people with decision-making power. Students mobilized unanimously to reject the discrimination, and colleagues from many faculties expressed their solidarity. The response constituted an emblematic testimonial of an attitude free of gender prejudice or other discriminating prejudices by the university community. I found the general solidarity particularly moving because of all the artificial barriers that it was overcoming. I am female in a sector (the hard sciences) that is still male dominated, also because of actual scarcity of female specialists; I am white in a university where all students and most of the academics are black; and I am a foreigner, that is, not South African. The solidarity stressed the importance of academic considerations beyond and above all those barriers, such as gender, race, and nationality. Overcoming barriers is simultaneously an important outcome of growth in consciousness and an optimal foundation for further building.

What made you interested in chemical education?

The first reasons were the same as those that made me interested in chemistry. I had an exceptionally good chemistry teacher in secondary school. He used to discuss the motivation for his teaching approaches with us, so that we could know why he was teaching certain things in a certain way. So, my first encounter with chemistry coincided with my first encounter with the issues of chemical education. It made the two things into two sides of the same entity. It generated the feeling that “doing science” means both generating knowledge and communicating knowledge so that other people can acquire both the available knowledge and the ability to generate new knowledge. Up to now, I do not consider chemistry and chemical education as separate.

Teaching chemistry courses means being a chemistry educator “de facto”, because of “doing it”. If one wants to do it well, to try and meet the needs of the students as much as possible, then one has to consider the students’ difficulties, share these ideas with other educators, and try to find the best approaches for the students that one is teaching, the actual students with whom one works.

Research is part of being a chemist. But research is usually shared with postgraduate students. And training a postgraduate student is, again, educating. There is no way of separating the research component and the education component in the work one does with postgraduate students, they are intrinsically intertwined.

Education is a continuous challenge. We deal with human beings, and this involves lots of perspectives to be taken into account simultaneously. It is absolutely fascinating.

Why do you think language and visualization are important tools for teaching?

Language is the main communication tool, and also the tool through which we think, by forming sentences in our minds. Because of this, mastery of language becomes a discriminating factor in determining the level of communication (effectiveness of communication) and the level of sophistication at which we can think. I would go so far as to think that democracy requires access to high levels of language skills and the possibility of acquiring such high levels for everybody.

The belief that language pertains to the humanities domain and is not so relevant in the sciences is still widespread. Unfortunately, it undermines both the effectiveness of science learning and the development of those levels of creativity that are necessary for the future of science, through new generations.

Science requires being rigorous. Being rigorous depends on the appropriate use of language. Imprecisions in the use of language corresponds to lack of clarity with which concepts are understood – where by “understanding” I include all the implications of a certain concept. I have done a lot of analysis, over many years, of the use of imprecise language in teaching materials, and the incorrect messages that imprecise wording transmits about science concepts. By using imprecise language, we make learning science more difficult and open the road to lots of unnecessary misconceptions. It is particularly telling when a student derives rigorous implications from an imprecise statement, and those implications are scientifically incorrect; I have seen cases in which a student applies proper logic to imprecise statements, and the resulting inferences are incorrect not because of a fault of the student, but because of a fault of the teaching source.

And visualization?

Visualization is another form of communication. It is less complex than language, although there are exceptions, for example, complex drawings such as engineering projects or programming flowcharts, where the complexity is comparable and communication through visualization is more efficient. Visualization enables the students to focus on specific aspects, building an impact that can be quite powerful for conceptual understanding. In chemistry, it is fundamental to foster familiarity with the invisible world of atoms and molecules.

Like language, visualization needs to be rigorous in order to be an effective tool. When designing an image, we need to consider whether it conveys the information that we wish to convey, but also to make sure that it does not entail other messages/implications that would be incorrect.

I have seen both secondary-school pupils and university students struggling with the interpretation of some images in their textbooks. There have been cases in which even I, as a chemist, found it difficult to interpret an image from a secondary-school textbook, because several imprecisions cumulated to overshadow, or completely hide, any actual chemistry message. What can we expect from pupils under such circumstances?

Visualization is a powerful teaching tool. We just need to make sure that we use it appropriately.

How can these tools be best used in the classroom?

The details depend on the context and its characteristics, above all on the levels of language mastery and visual literacy already acquired by the students.

The most basic feature is that of making sure that we always use language in a rigorous way, because this by itself helps clarity and efficiency. It is also important to attract the attention of the students to the relationships between concepts and how we express them. I usually analyze the meaning of definitions or law statements, integrating the conceptual and language points of view. I also find it effective to stress the relationships through the analysis of errors, asking students to explain why a certain statement is not correct; it is a way to train them to be precise, but also to analyze the concept concerned in detail, to highlight aspects that might have gone unnoticed. So, language analysis supports the clarification of concepts.

All these things are much more effective in the mother tongue, above all when pupils/students encounter a subject for the first time. I am deeply convinced that the first encounter with any science should occur in the mother tongue, because this facilitates understanding through many important channels. Understanding sciences, in particular sciences such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry, is not easy, and having to try and do it in a second language enormously increases the difficulties.

As for visualization, I avoid projecting lots of already prepared images. The impact of a projected image is not so high, unless one spends enough time to analyze all its details and the reasons why each of them is the way it is. In any case, I prefer interactive teaching, because it engages students actively, and this requires building a lecture together, although the teacher has to carefully guide the building. Because of this, if I draw an image on the board, I draw it step by step, explaining the reason of each new detail that I add. Whenever possible, I prefer to collaboratively build images, asking students to help build an image by giving me suggestions of what to draw next. When incorrect suggestions may offer the opportunity to clarify some aspects, I implement the suggestion and then ask students to discuss the outcome.

It is clear from this description that language and visualization are extensively interplaying within interactive teaching options. We need to guide students to catch the meaning of images and of all their details, and this is done through language. When students learn enough about image interpretation, images complement the explanations given through words, stressing the information concerned and making it clearer. The interplay between language and visualization becomes the key to optimal use of imagery for teaching and learning.

What is the situation for chemistry in Sub-Saharan Africa?

It is not easy to summarize it, because of the large number of aspects that deserve consideration. Furthermore, the situation is different in different countries, and by generalizing you risk overlooking important contextual aspects.

There are areas that are well-developed in most or all the universities, like research on natural products. This is important for the potential outcomes, and also valuable for the links with indigenous knowledge.

There are chemists who have the ability and dedication to initialize and develop things that go beyond their institution and beyond their country, promoting chemistry throughout the continent. An illustrious example is Professor Temechgen from the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, founder of the Federation of African Chemical Societies, founder of the African Journal of Chemical Education, and an active promoter of chemistry in many other ways. Another example is Professor Geoffrey Kamau of the University of Nairobi, Kenya, who, besides the Theoretical Chemistry Workshops in Africa, initiated the Eastern and Southern Africa Environmental Chemistry Conferences and the East and Southern Africa Laboratory Managers Association (E-SALAMA).

A problem that is still diffuse is
the scarcity of physical chemists. In many universities, physical chemistry is taught by specialists in other fields of chemistry, because of the scarcity of physical chemists. This, unfortunately, hampers the training of new physical chemists, because only a person who has specialized in one of the areas of physical chemistry can supervise postgraduate projects in that area, thus training young people to become physical chemists. At the previously mentioned Fifth International Chemistry Conference in Africa, the few physical chemists present came together to prepare a resolution expressing concern for the future of physical chemistry in Africa. It still remains a scarce skill area.

The situation of computational chemistry, outlined earlier, can be viewed as part of this problem. Without entering a debate as to whether theoretical/computational chemistry is part of physical chemistry or is a separate area, its situation is emblematic of the situation of physical chemistry in Africa, and is probably its most extreme case. The scarcity of specialists determines phenomena such as chemistry students not being fully exposed to it during their undergraduate studies and the impossibility of training new specialists – a problem affecting many institutions. On the other hand, there is also an issue of the recognition of its relevance. For instance, a number of young people have moved to other countries for their postgraduate studies and have been trained in theoretical/computational chemistry. Most of them did not go back to their countries of origin after completing their studies. Besides the weight of economic motivations, there is also the wish to continue with a type of research for which they have developed keen interest, and they do not know whether that will be possible if they go back to their original institutions. It is important to develop measures to ensure such a possibility.

What is your research about?

I guess I have to answer about both my areas of interest.

For theoretical/computational chemistry, I am interested in the study of biologically active molecules. This is first of all a personal interest. Luckily, it is also an area that can be effectively used to highlight the possible roles of computational chemistry in drug development.

In order to emphasize this best within the community where I work, I started with a molecule that had been identified in a plant utilized in traditional medicine in South Africa and has been experimentally proven to have interesting medicinal properties. Together with my first postgraduate student, we studied all what could be studied computationally. Then we expanded the study to the entire class of compounds, that is, acylphloroglucinols, to provide information that may help other researchers to investigate the relationships between molecular structures and pharmacological activities. Now, I am studying some molecules of this class with specific activities, and one of my current students is involved in this. With my other student, we chose to study antimalarial compounds isolated from a plant utilized in traditional medicine in DR Congo, because I thought it appropriate that she should study something that is of interest in her country, and obtain information that could be interesting for researchers in her university of origin, the University of Kinshasa, DR Congo.

For chemical education, my research is mostly experimental and practical oriented: analyzing students’ answers to diagnose difficulties; trying to identify patterns in those difficulties; trying to identify causes, whenever realistically possible; and utilizing this information to design the approaches for the next contacts with students. It is a sort of recursion process, where the information from a certain activity prompts interventions in the next activity, but also the information during a course in a certain academic year suggests details in the design of the next “issue” of the same course in the next academic year. The obvious objective is that of continuous improvement.

What do you do in your spare time?

There are many moments in which I wish I could have spare time …

There are two things that I used to do before coming to South Africa and that I still miss: cycling and mountain hiking. I learnt to love both activities in the part of Italy where I grew up: Treviso, not far from Venice. Cycling is a common habit in areas of plains. Tradition and the relative nearness of the Dolomites make mountain hiking one of the things that are most enjoyable.

I continued cycling when I worked in Zambia, and I replaced mountain hiking with the outings of the ornithological society, where we often walked through hills and mountains, although not at hiking pace.

I did a lot of hiking when I worked in Lesotho, joining the student hiking club. I still have wonderful memories not only of the hikes and the astoundingly beautiful scenic views opening one after the other as we walked, but of how students used to take care of me – a much older person, more than double their average age even then – and also to take care to acquaint me with many aspects of their culture, whenever we walked through some village. I was fascinated by how so many aspects were typical of what we used to term “mountain culture” in Italy. I planned to reflect and enquire more on the fundamental similarities of mountain cultures in different countries … but time has always been a major problem.

The place where I live now in South Africa is conducive neither for cycling nor for mountain hiking, for a variety of reasons. So, my contact with nature is mostly through taking care of my small garden, which I keep as wild looking as possible, although under control. This mostly means ensuring that bushes and trees do not invade the house or do not send long branches beyond the garden’s fence. Of course, a place with bushes and trees, even if only few meters long and few meters wide, attracts plenty of birds, a good number of interesting insects, lizards of various sizes and shapes, and various other creatures. Plenty of opportunities to watch interesting things.

Liliana Mammino
Liliana Mammino
studied chemistry at the University of Pisa, Italy, and gained her Ph.D. in chemistry at Moscow State University, Russia. She has taught chemistry in several African nations including Somalia, Zambia, Lesotho, and South Africa.
She is currently a professor at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Venda, Thohoyandou, South Africa, and a member of the Subcommittee on Green Chemistry of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemists (IUPAC).

Selected Award

  • IUPAC 2013 Distinguished Women in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering

Selected Publications

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