Michele Pavanello and student

Michele Pavanello Teaches Theoretical Physics in Rwanda

Professor Michele Pavanello, Professor of Chemistry and Physics at the School of Arts and Sciences–Newark, has done extensive educational outreach since arriving here in 2012. 

As lead faculty for the Pavanello Research Group, which specializes in theoretical chemistry and physics, he has mentored countless undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scholars. He has also brought together hundreds of students and faculty for regional ‘hackathons,” where participants collaborate on solving overarching theoretical questions at two- and three-day computational coding sessions. And he played a key role in bringing high-performance cluster computing to RU-N, which has spurred advanced research across all Rutgers campuses.

Recently Pavanello continued his innovative outreach by traveling to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to take part in an international initiative that trains African Ph.D. students, post-doctoral researchers and lecturers in computational and theoretical physics.

Going to Rwanda to teach at ASESMA was an eye-opening experience for me,” said Pavanello. “I met extremely motivated and talented students and had the privilege of teaching them some of the tools and science we developed here in Newark.”

The program, called the African School on Electronic Structure Methods and Applications (ASESMA), is a biennial two-week event that has taken place in various African countries since 2010, including South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia. This year’s school, which was held at the University of Rwanda’s East Africa Institute for Fundamental Research (EIAFR) in June, drew 30 students from across the continent and 20 lecturers from Europe, Africa, India and the United States.

For many of the students, this was a huge privilege they could never dream of, free from worry about food and safety.

Pavanello participated in week two of this year’s school, which focused on in-depth topics and research projects after students had received training on basics in standard classes during week one. He gave presentations, oversaw computer labs where students tried out computational methods presented in the first week’s lectures, and worked with four students interested in his research

He found the students extremely motivated and well prepared.

“You don’t find many theoretical physics professors in Rwanda or other African countries. EIAFR has a program, but they don’t have many people on staff to teach these classes,” said Pavanello. “For these students, this is a rare life-changing experience, and the application process is competitive.”

ASESMA is an extensive effort funded by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ITCP), which promotes active engagement with scientists in developing countries and is governed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Italy and UNESCO. It also receives support from École Polytechnique dérale in Switzerland, American Physical Society, and several institutions in Italy. ITCP also provides daily support for ASESMA and EIAFR, according to Pavenello.

ASESMA students travel from across Africa for these biennial intensives, receiving full scholarships for room, board and tuition. Lecturers and instructors, meanwhile, must secure their own funding to participate and do so voluntarily. Pavanello used a portion of his own  discretionary funds and received additional support from Rutgers Global, which he says is committed to working in Africa.

“It’s a big, expensive operation, and it takes many international partners to fund this and make it happen,” said Pavanello. “And Rick Garfunkel [Vice President for Global Affiars at Rutgers Global] was familiar with the ASESMA and was very supportive.”

Michele Pavanello and students in RwandaPavanello found out about the opportunity from Steve Ndenge, a professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rwanda, who had attended an event that Pavanello held at RU-N last year. He leaped at the chance when invited and looks forward to doing it again.

In addition to the impressive international collaboration that enables the school to not only happen but thrive, Pavanello was struck by his students’ material circumstances and the corresponding magnitude of opportunity that ASESMA represented for them.

Pavanello recalls that in closing out his weeklong stint, he asked students if they were looking forward to returning home. Half said yes, and half said no. 

“For many of the students, this was a huge privilege they could never dream of, free from worry about food and safety,” said PavanelloLife may be busier and more complicated in their home countries and not so conducive to focusing on science fully. It was sobering to me to hear that.”

But Pavanello also saw hope, not only in his students’ thirst for knowledge and achievement but also in the host country’s progress.

The students were incredible, but the location was also impressive in its own way,” said Pavanello. Only 29 years ago Rwanda experienced one of the bloodiest genocides in history. To consider the genocide and see how Rwandans have re-built their identity after it was stopped in 1994 was impressive. They rejected colonial-era ethnic definitions and now embrace an “I am Rwandan” identity. I came back from Rwanda thinking that there are lessons to be learned for us here in the U.S.