Making scientific research accessible to Mauritians

Nitin Rughoonauth, a graduate of the University of Melbourne, has used his passion for science and his quest to make research accessible to the public to contribute to developing science and technology awareness in Mauritius through Café Scientifique.

In contrast with popular perceptions that associate Mauritius solely with island-style holidays, Mauritian President, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a scientist and entrepreneur, on her appointment in 2015, pledged to export the island’s research capabilities and promote their notable outputs in the areas of science and technology. Since then, the Mauritian government announced that, through a range of initiatives, the country will be developed into a Centre for Higher Learning and Excellence and a regional knowledge hub.

The first technology park in the Indian Ocean region, BioPark Mauritius, was opened last year. This is a public-private partnership fostering innovative companies, as well as talented researchers and professionals, to create the conditions to help Mauritius achieve its transition from manufacturing to a more intelligent economy. Mauritius will also be taking part in Phase 2 of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project, an international project that aims to build the world’s biggest radio telescope on project sites shared between Australia and Africa.

Against this background, Nitin has made it his mission to contribute to science education in Mauritius. Nitin obtained a BSc Honours in Mathematics, Statistics and Physics in 2005 through an international scholarship from the University of Melbourne, and later completed his PhD in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Nitin is thankful for his undergraduate studies in Australia, which gave him international exposure to his field. He is immensely proud of being an Alumnus of the University of Melbourne. During his long-term academic development over 12 years, Nitin also studied in France and Germany for shorter periods.

Nitin Rughoonauth, Founder of Café Scientifique Maurice and intern at Mauritian Ministry of Education & Human Resources, Tertiary Education & Scientific Research
Nitin Rughoonauth, Co-founder of Café Scientifique Maurice

Following his return to Mauritius, Nitin, and his colleague and friend, Kamlesh Dookayka, founded Café Scientifique Maurice in December 2014. Café Scientifique is a grassroots public science outreach initiative that runs in many cities and countries around the world. The philosophy behind Café Scientifique is that science and its methods should be accessible to all citizens. Nitin and Kamlesh, whose backgrounds are in experimental astro-particle physics and mathematics, decided to launch the Mauritian chapter to offer opportunities to the general public to interact with research scientists in an informal, non-academic and friendly social setting. “The aim of the initiative is to provide a platform to bring science out of the lab and the ivory tower of academia to the general public,” explains Nitin.

One afternoon a month, they invite a wide-ranging audience, from retirees to schoolchildren, to a local café to listen to and network with science experts who discuss their research in a way that non-scientists can understand. These discussions are often topical and can frequently stimulate debate around some controversial subjects. To Nitin, the important aspect is that the right setting and conditions create a relaxed environment that is conducive to learning and vibrant debates.

“Our aim is to ignite and fuel a sustained conversation between the experts and society at large at a level that leads to improved understanding and a better appreciation of one’s place in the world,” Nitin explains. The international exposure Nitin gained through studying in Australia has enabled him to create and maintain links that keep him on par with happenings in the scientific world, as well as being in contact with scientists who may visit Mauritius.

Nitin and Kamlesh have organised six Café Scientifique events since 2014, and hosted scientists and experts in astrophysics, astrobiology, cosmology, evolutionary anthropology, and geolocalisation from Mauritius or abroad. These events were held in three different venues across the island and have attracted between 40 and 50 participants each. This is evidence that Mauritians are indeed interested in learning more about science. According to Nitin, the audience determines the success of each event. “The existence and success of the initiative depends critically on the participation of the public, and we believe that we have successfully taken the first steps in setting up this platform in Mauritius”.

Ploughing back into the community through science talks at Café Scientifique happens in Nitin’s spare time as he works full-time for the Mauritian Ministry of Education and Human Resources, Tertiary Education and Scientific Research. Café Scientifique Maurice is therefore dependent on the generous support of some venue managers and staff who volunteer, host and assist with organising the events free of charge to the public. One such volunteer is Silvano de Gennaro, who is now retired, but previously worked for more than three decades in the computer department at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). He records the talks hosted by Café Scientifique Maurice and uploads them to YouTube, making the talks and discussions available to a much wider audience. Nitin and Kamlesh are now exploring setting up Café Scientifique Maurice as an official non-government organisation (NGO), which will make it easier to explore financial support in order to expand the initiative. More information is available on the Café Scientifique Maurice Facebook page.

Image credit: Café Scientifique Maurice

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