PhD Scholars from Africa Advance Research at WPI

Dean of Engineering Wole Soboyejo a mentor to several African students
November 16, 2017

For years, Wole Soboyejo, dean of engineering, championed the collaboration of engineers and scientists around the world knowing the work would lead to new ideas, new partnerships, and new breakthroughs in everything from medical devices to sustainable energy.

To promote that work, Soboyejo was instrumental in bringing two dozen PhD scholars from Africa to WPI to further their research efforts here. As part of the Pan African Materials Institute (PAMI), these funded scholars, up to six at a time, will come from places like Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon to spend three months on campus working in the labs and with faculty to advance their research in ways they could not do at home.

Wole Soboyejo

For years, Soboyejo has been an essential mentor to many African students, even back when he founded the U.S./Africa Materials Institute at Princeton, one of six international materials institutes supported by the National Science Foundation, and when he spent time as provost of the African University of Science & Technology in Abuja, Nigeria. 

“In 1996, I had a sleepless night,” he says, “and I wanted to connect scientists in Africa with scientists in America.” After a few false starts, Soboyejo was invited to a U.S./Africa workshop and turned the experience there into the U.S./Africa Materials Institute. He saw African scholars who lacked access to resources and knew bringing them to the United States to expand their research and take knowledge back to Africa (what he refers to as the brain rotation model) had global significance.

Here, scholars find equipment and resources that aren’t always available in Africa. The research advances they make are rapid. “They have access to labs and are in a supportive environment,” says Soboyejo. “They are working collaboratively.” WPI’s support for the program has been instrumental, he says, including assistance by Bruce Bursten, provost; Bogdan Vernescu, vice provost for research; Camille Bouchard-Chhoeuk, operations manager in the provost’s office; and the staff at International House.

“They really enjoy being here,” says Pamela St. Louis, director of operations for the engineering department. With only three months to produce as much work as possible, the scholars work nonstop. “They can work 24 hours a day if they want,” she says. “Because in Africa, there are days they have no electricity at all.”  

The scholars produce work here, but the program’s purpose has an eye on the future. “This is an interdisciplinary collaboration to support training of PhD scholars from many departments,” says Soboyejo. “We are now training the next generation of African professors.” Scholars arrive from one of 8 to 10 universities in Africa to perform research at a handful of US institutions including WPI (others are Arizona State, Rutgers, and Ohio State). Mechanical engineering research professor John Obayemi also helps guide the scholars and ensures they have what is needed in their research endeavors.

Efforts to get the scholars to WPI weren’t nearly as challenging as making sure they would be settled here, says St. Louis, who also provides the nurturing for these scholars who have left family and friends so far away. The Provost’s office and the International House team are excellent at getting the proper paperwork and processes to get the students on campus. St. Louis helped find and coordinate housing and gives them some extra fussing over to make it as easy as possible for them. “These are dedicated people who are working hard,” she says. “They are making many sacrifices to come here, and they are going back as educators.”

While other universities involved typically get three or four scholars, WPI gets nearly two dozen. Many of them are here because of Soboyejo, but other faculty, including civil and environmental engineering professor Nima Rahbar and computer science professor Emmanuel Agu, have opened their labs and schedules. “There is a strong commitment to doing this as a community at WPI,” says Soboyejo. And WPI’s state-of-the-art resources are exceptional. Calling the bioresources facilities in Gateway tremendous, he says the vivarium that enables cell culture work and the manufacturing and materials resources in Higgins Labs and Washburn Shops are all essential to the scholars’ work. Close access to faculty in these environments builds collaboration and international networks on both sides.

PAMI scholars in discussion at a meeting.

Before they are even considered for the program, the scholars must have produced exceptional work. They must have published in two journals of high quality before they can even defend their work, says Soboyejo. To keep the program’s potential impact high, the scholars study areas that are diverse yet related such as biomaterials, materials for energy, multifunctional materials, and materials education and outreach.

“Their time here is very planned and very structured,” he says. Students choose the area they will work in that most closely reflects their research.

Nigerian scholar Stella Dozie-Nwachukwu is developing cancer therapies. Her work focuses on developing nanoparticles that can deliver targeted drug delivery directly to cancer cells. “The main challenge with something like chemotherapy is that less than one percent of the drug gets to the area,” she says. Her research is developing ways to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched; the process is healthier, safer, and more economical. In Nigeria, power outages make cell culture work impossible. With WPI’s reliable power, she hasn’t had to worry about that issue. “It’s been kind of overwhelming, the amount of work I’ve been able to do here,” she says.

Elsie Bowen-Dodoo is from Ghana and says because of the process and equipment here, her research in ceramic water filters moves much faster. “Here I have the training and the authorization to process my work myself,” she says. “At home, I have to have someone else do it or send work out of the country to be processed. Doing it myself also helps me understand the whole process of my work.” Nangah Randy Che, of Cameroon, says her work with cyclodextrins for water filtration has advanced rapidly at WPI because she has been able to focus exclusively on her work. “Here I can think, sleep, eat, and drink this work,” she says. “It gives us time.”

After their time here, the scholars return to established labs and take back new techniques they can use as they proceed with their PhD research or continue with postdoctoral research.

Upon her return to Nigeria, Dozie-Nwachukwu is hoping for grants to continue her work. “I don’t want all this knowledge to be wasted,” she says. “They have to support us because this will help a lot of people and will go a long way toward alleviating the problem of cancer in Africa.”

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil