A Summer School in Africa Breaks Barriers in Neuroscience

How we facilitate the formation of a cohesive community that transcends race, gender and geographic boundaries in just three weeks.

A visit to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Adrienne Fairhall

Every January, the southern tip of Africa hosts a gathering of nascent neuroscientists unlike any other. About 30 postgraduate students congregate in False Bay, Cape Town, for three weeks to learn about the computations of the brain and to prepare for research leveraging computational neuroscience techniques. The course’s community-driven ethos is built into its name: the IBRO-Simons Computational Neuroscience Imbizo — imbizo is a Xhosa word meaning ‘a gathering to share knowledge.’

As the only computational neuroscience summer school in Africa, its student cohort has a strong emphasis on African students, with at least 50 percent indigenous to the continent. We also make sure that female scientists make up at least 50 percent of the attendees. The aim of the imbizo is to strengthen neuroscience in Africa by connecting our students with some of the best and brightest minds in computational neuroscience, who come as faculty. A complementary aim is to strengthen Africans in neuroscience by facilitating the formation of strong and meaningful connections that last beyond the summer school and that are critical for future success.

Central to our course is the idea that bonds and links formed through an intense and sensitive imbizo are crucial for building a successful scientific career, and are especially critical for students from Africa. For this reason, we have made every effort to ensure that relationships between students form early and are strengthened throughout the course through social rituals, such as Wednesday night science socials and special Sunday outings. We wanted our students to work, but we also made sure they enjoyed themselves.

In science, as in life, failure is certain and happens far more often that we would like. This is a tough concept for many of the imbizo cohort, who are used to achieving the best. To foster an environment where students feel safe enough to fail, teaching assistants (TAs) encourage and support each person to achieve their own best work. The TAs guide and nurture by setting personalised expectations that push boundaries but are achievable. The benefit of learning to fail at the imbizo is that failing one’s own expectations has no dire consequences. Forgetting a concept or running out of time on a project does not mean you fail the imbizo. The objective is to learn something new, not everything. The projects are a chance to push what you thought you could do, not publish a paper. We do what we can. We push a little harder. We go a little further. We fail along the way. And this is OK.

Students and TAs on the shores of Muizenberg Beach. Adedamola "Dammy" Onih

A strong sense of community, one built upon celebrating individual differences, is essential for fostering an environment where students feel they can fail safely. Our students are psychologists, philosophers, physiologists, programmers, physicists and mathematicians; each is familiar with some aspect of the curriculum and a virtual stranger to other parts. For each tutorial, the teaching assistants group students into complementary pairs so they will learn in a multidirectional way. For example, a reinforcement-learning tutorial will have a pair consisting of both machine learning and psychology.

By leveraging individual strengths and sharing a joint sense of the unknown, the entire group starts relying on one another to really benefit from the course. The cross-discipline interactions at the early stage of one’s career sets the tone for future collaborative work by building personal bridges and understanding of the unique discourse of a field.

Teaching assistants are a critical component of the course — we select them based not just on their neuroscience knowledge but on their ability to empathize and engage with students beyond the intellectual level. Given the diversity of backgrounds, encouragement is paramount. Students often feel like they are the only one who isn’t understanding a lecture. To help them feel less alone, teaching assistants and faculty are open about their own ignorance and ‘imposter syndrome’ feelings.

Weekly “Ask me anything” sessions with the faculty explore these kinds of themes along with scientific questions. In addition to lunches and dinners, these smaller, more intimate group settings make it easier for participants to ask questions about individual lectures. Having the space and time to engage with a professor on the journey to that night’s dinner at a nearby restaurant gives students the chance understand academia beyond the science, such as academics’ often unusual journeys into novel directions of research.

Every week students walk and talk with TAs and faculty along the water's edge on the way to dinner. Christopher Currin

Each dinner, we create a seating plan for students, faculty and TAs, so that participants will always be sitting with someone new. Each table can only get food once all their members are present, forming a shared responsibility to eat together. The group adopts these local customs quickly and with enthusiasm, especially if these habits are set early.

Safe spaces to relax and recuperate are hard to create in a new place. Whether spontaneously matched by personality or by roommate, having someone to trust and confide in during the three weeks of the course is important for staying motivated in a faraway place. Beyond supporting mental health, a beach two minutes away helps to quickly refresh between the morning and afternoon sessions, or to give a lift to start the day. Yoga, exercise boot camp, surfing and swimming lessons have all been on offer over the years, led by TAs. Most important, we have simply made sure that everyone has spent a great deal of time together.

Each year, students reflect on the course and consistently highlight special moments with other people. Drawing upon diverse perspectives has allowed alumni to follow dreams, enlighten career paths and overcome obstacles.

The best achievement of the imbizo is that each year our student body forms a cohesive, tight-knit group that transcends race, gender and national boundaries. We see that they provide support, networking and scientific advice to one another for many years to come, often reuniting at conferences to reminisce. This allows ideas to flow around the world in a way that would not have happened otherwise, opening the door for intellectual parity, and forming a scientific network that spans the world with Africa at its heart.

Chris Currin was a student of the Imbizo in 2017 and has been an organizer since 2018. He is finishing his graduate degree in neuroscience at the University of Cape Town.

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