Professor Mouhamed Fall wants mathematics to benefit humanity

Just over a month ago, Senegalese Professor Mouhamed Moustapha Fall was named the 2022 winner of the Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians in Developing Countries, only the second African to do so, after Philibert Nang from Gabon in 2011.

This award is given annually by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Italy.

On 14 March, as institutions such as schools and universities observed the International Day of Mathematics or Pi Day (the date 3-14 was chosen because of the 3.14 constant for Pi), Fall also urged governments in Africa to invest more in mathematical research and, if they expect the continent to excel, revise their curricula.

This comes at a time when concerns keep growing about the quality and management of Africa’s research in mathematics – areas in which Fall has been playing an active role on the continent.

Since 2019, Fall has been serving as the president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Centre in Senegal (AIMS-Senegal) after becoming an endowed Chair of Mathematics and its Applications a few years earlier.

He is also a member of the International Scientific Board of UNESCO’s International Basic Sciences Programme, or IBSP, and a member of the European Mathematical Society-Committee of Developing Countries’ Meeting, among other international positions.

Among other aims, his work seeks to address issues in agriculture and food production, with a special focus on overfishing. In pure mathematics, his fields of study are differential geometry and partial differential equations.

University World News spoke to him about his life, work and the state of mathematical research in Africa.

UWN: What does the Ramanujan Prize mean to you and for Africa?

MMF: Winning the Ramanujan Prize, which is about celebrating young mathematicians from underdeveloped countries for their work, is a great honour for me as I am only the second African to have been nominated after more than 10 years. Countries such as China, Brazil and India, for instance, have very strong mathematical traditions.

UWN: You were honoured for your contribution to the advancement of maths in Africa, including work on the theory of partial differential equations and on geometric analysis. Can you perhaps explain to non-mathematicians what this entails or how one uses this in everyday life? Also, in what contexts do you apply your work?

MMF: I would say that I mainly work in pure mathematics while having some real-life applications in mind. The fields of partial differential equations and differential geometry are huge and are tools to model several phenomena in life, for example, migrations, fluid dynamism, infectious diseases, human cells, cancer propagation, finance, GPSs, and so on. Any major advancement in this field is considered important. My wish is that our contributions can be applied in a context that benefits humanity.

UWN: You are using your work in environmental-agricultural contexts like fishing and preventing overfishing. Tell us more about what it entails and how it came about.

MMF: As a pure mathematician, I was approached by colleagues working in this domain. I found it interesting to consider these questions about overfishing, since they have social, economic and ecological impacts.

We tried to understand the impact on the fish reserve, on where and how to put marine protector areas in the ocean, and considered communications between the fishermen. These questions can be described using mathematics and computer sciences. As I said, this is my secondary research interest but it might change to be my primary focus in the future.

UWN: Tell us about your education, starting from primary school.

MMF: As a young Senegalese child, I did my studies in Senegal. I later went to high school at Lycée Limamou Laye, located on the outskirts of Dakar [capital of Senegal], which is known for excellence in education and good behaviour. The major branches were maths, physics and industrial drawing. After my high school diploma, I was accepted at Gaston Berger University in the city of Saint-Louis, in the north of Senegal.

Having successfully obtained my masters degree in applied maths and benefiting from a scholarship opened to few students in Africa, I joined ICTP (International Centre for Theoretical Physics) in Trieste, Italy, for a diploma in mathematics.

I passed the entrance exams into SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies) – I was only the second African to do so – where I did my PhD in a field of research combining partial differential equations and differential geometry. I went to Belgium, Germany and also visited many places in the United States and Asia.

UWN: When did you realise you could do maths?

MMF: I always had a passion for numbers, logic and critical thinking. The logic of calculations in primary school was very easy for me and my teacher did not allow me to skip any questions. He really encouraged me.

Later, after high school, I wanted to pursue industrial drawing but I did not know of any school specialising in the field in Senegal. I then chose to study mathematics and computer sciences at the university in Saint-Louis. So, I continued with maths while 95% of my classmates went to study computer sciences.

UWN: Were there any moments or any persons who directed you towards a career in or life of mathematics?

MMF: Everything started at school and my parents are the main people who made an effort for my brothers, sisters and me to be successful. Many circumstances and people influenced my choice to pursue a career in maths. They include teachers, professors, mentors, international figures, and so on. However, there has always been that inner lure and passion for maths, its relationship with the universe, and also its rationale and logic. However, I thank all the people who have shaped my career and made great contributions to my success. It is hard to make a list.

UWN: What does your work as the president of the AIMS Senegal Centre and an endowed Chair of Mathematics and its Applications of the institute entail?

MMF: I mainly oversee the training and research programmes in the institute.

My work as centre president for AIMS-Senegal is that of promotion of maths culture, through innovative curricular development, female mathematicians’ promotion, and also pan-Africanism. As an endowed Chair, my work is to develop research in the institute and nurture it among young colleagues.

UWN: What are some highlights and lowlights in your career?

MMF: My return to Africa and Senegal, in particular, was a turning point. It came exactly when AIMS Senegal was founded by AIMS-NEI (Next Einstein Initiative) and the government of Senegal. I also arrived exactly when the German government decided to support the research at AIMS by opening the Humboldt Research Chair Programme with a substantial funding grant.

I hesitated a lot to return to Senegal, fearing isolation and [the absence] of a good environment. But, luckily, all these were present in 2013.

UWN: Winners of the Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries are awarded €15,000 (US$15,900) in support of their research. In what specific areas of mathematical research will you use these funds and how will it benefit your country, Senegal, and Africa as a whole?

MMF: I would like to use the major part of the funding to travel around Senegal and neighbouring countries to promote mathematics in high schools and universities. This is, of course, not enough, but with the help of the Minister of Higher Education and Research in Senegal, Professor Moussa Balde, who is a renowned mathematician, we started some outreach programmes in the south of Senegal.

UWN: You have a rich experience conducting extensive research in the field of mathematical science. Based on your experience, what challenges do African researchers face in their quest to offer solutions to mathematical problems and how can these be addressed?

MMF: There are many things to consider: environment, funding, governance. In Africa, the research management in mathematics is very poor and this results in a very low quality of our research publications. Most of the institutions involved in the academic career of the researchers focus on the numbers but not the quality.

For instance, it is possible to become a professor at the age of 35 in the best universities in world but, in Africa, they still stick to numbers: age, hours taught, number of published papers.

This does not motivate the quest for excellence in what we are doing, because maths is a universal subject and the competition is worldwide. I mean, several people around the globe can be simultaneously thinking of the same mathematical problem. If Africa wants to make a difference, we need to build a good environment and develop proper funding mechanisms, international collaborations and work for excellence.

UWN: Every year on 14 March International Day of Mathematics is celebrated. Why is it important to observe this day?

MMF: The International Day of Mathematics was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2019. It is celebrated on 14 March each year, in collaboration with the International Mathematical Union. It is a day in which we show how mathematics can positively impact our lives and how, as a tool, it can be used to provide responses to the 17 objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals fixed by the United Nations for 2030.

We take the opportunity on this day to talk to decision-makers, policymakers, students and teachers, about mathematics models and provide solutions related to resource sustainability, poverty, climate, epidemiology, and so on.

UWN: If you were to counsel governments in Africa on improving research in mathematical science at the higher education level, and earlier, what would be your advice?

MMF: My advice to African governments would be manifold: curricular adaptation to our specific modern numerical context, teachers’ training on new pedagogical challenges and resources such as proper facilities, equipment and didactical materials. I think the curricula should be revised, so students can specialise early.

The use of local languages (or what I call the languages spoken in the markets and shops) should be considered at the early stage at school. We all started doing mathematics in our mother tongue when we bought something in a shop and checked if the change was correct or not. However, doing this exercise in another language can be problematic!

UWN: What are some of the projects that you are working on?

MMF: I keep focusing on my research and on the promotion of science among the younger generation.