#AlumoftheWeek — Jonas Ngnawé, AIMS Cameroon ’17 & AMMI ‘19

Sometimes, all you have is passion with no particular pathway in mind. Seneca put it right when he said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Over ten thousand applications come in each year for the AIMS Regular Master’s program in Mathematical Sciences across the five Centres. We can only say the chosen few are lucky to be selected. The training given to these students helps them smoothen a pathway to success with the passion they have nurtured all their life. Today on the #AlumoftheWeek, we bring you the story of a young Cameroonian who turned his life around at AIMS and is currently a PhD student at Université Laval and Mila-Quebec AI institute. Our alumnus of this week is Jonas Ngnawé. Jonas completed his regular master’s program with AIMS Cameroon in 2017 and later the AIMS AMMI program in Rwanda in 2019.

Q: Kindly walk us through your academic journey before you arrived at AIMS.

Jonas: I did high school in Cameroon in various parts of the country (Far-North in my hometown, then to the West, and later the Littoral regions). After my High School Leaving Certificate (Baccalauréat C) in 2011, I was admitted after a competitive entrance examination to the Ecole Polytechnic, Yaounde (the National Advanced School of Engineering), where I graduated in 2016 as a Computer Engineer. During my last year of engineering internship, I received admission to AIMS-Cameroon for the Structured Master’s degree in Mathematical Sciences.

Q: How will you describe your time at AIMS and what you found different?

Jonas: Overall, I had a great time at AIMS. I kept a lot of fond memories, though I will not forget that AIMS also stands for “African Institute for Missing Sleep.” We had sleepless nights preparing homework and presentations with colleagues. Despite some challenges, it is a conducive environment to learn and grow, all free of charge. AIMS makes a difference in the opportunity it gives African students; I’m a living testimony of this.

In its design and philosophy, AIMS has always been something I have yearned for. A place I had always wished to be. I think that Neil Turok’s vision and the creation of the AIMS Next-Einstein Initiative are genii. I’m grateful to all those who contributed and still contributing to this great ideal.

AIMS had a significant impact on my career path. I must confess that I joined AIMS for the first time without any particular plan. However, I knew mathematics would be helpful in my career later in life. I just loved mathematics. I was also guided by a quote my first-year Abstract Algebra professor Thomas Bouetou used to make; “A little math takes a good decision away, while more brings it closer.” A quote attributed to the French biologist Louis Pasteur.

So I just wanted to learn more maths; later, I got interested in Machine Learning, and the African Master’s in Machine Intelligence (AMMI) trained me in it in the best of manners by learning from the researchers pushing the frontiers of this field. At AMMI, I learned most of the things I know now about Machine Learning, laying a solid foundation to grow in the area.

Q: Would you kindly highlight a few things you will consider success stories after AIMS?

Jonas: After graduating from AIMS-Cameroon in 2017, I did some software engineering jobs as a Freelancer while tutoring at AIMS-Cameroon. I also worked full-time as a Computer Engineer at GroupOne Company, a local engineering company in Limbe. While doing these, I was grooming my interest in Machine Learning by following some online courses with the hope of getting an opportunity later to formalise it. In 2018, I saw the announcement by Moustapha Cissé and Neil Turok about starting the African Masters in Machine Intelligence program in Rwanda funded by Google and Facebook (now Meta), where I applied and was thrilled to be accepted.

After the AMMI program, I was fortunate to join the Google AI residency program, which allowed me to join the first Google AI lab in Africa in Accra, Ghana. At the lab, I had the opportunity to work with great researchers and learn from them, introducing me to the world of machine learning research. Currently, I’m studying for a PhD in Machine Learning at Université Laval and Mila-Quebec AI Insitute. All these achievements result from the support from AIMS, particularly from the late Prof. Marco Garuti, former Academic Director of AIMS-Cameroon, who was always kind to submit even my last-minute requests for recommendations.

Q: What will you tell young Africans who want to walk your path?

Jonas: You can always do more than you think; don’t limit yourself. You don’t need to know everything, the little you know is enough to do something. I would repeat this quote every day in the same spirit: “whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it; Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it — Goethe.”