Sidiki Zongo: Inspiring Young Physicists in Burkina Faso’s Capital
Sidiki Zongo came to the 2016 Lindau Meeting, fresh from submitting his PhD thesis in nonlinear optics at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria. He hails from Koudougou, the third largest city in the sub-Saharan country of Burkina Faso, and has since returned to his homeland to an academic post in the country’s capital city, Ouagadougou.
How has your career unfolded since you came to Lindau?
I was awarded my PhD in June 2017. My thesis dealt with dyes for nonlinear optics and photonic applications – an exciting topic! In November in the same year, I began my job at the University of Ouagadougou as a lecturer and researcher. Last year, I was awarded an African-German Network of Excellence in Science (AGNES) Grant for junior researchers. It has motivated me in my research and I am thankful to the donors.
Tell us about your current work. What do you enjoy most about it?
I teach physics — optics, electricity and mechanics ─ to undergraduate students, but I also supervise MSc students. In my research project, I focus on investigating the optical properties of hybrid-perovskite materials for solar cells.
As a lecturer and researcher, I don’t think there is anything else in academia more exciting than sharing knowledge with young researchers. I particularly enjoy supervising students.
In the past you’ve been active outside your ‘bread-and-butter’ work as a physicist, including leading a local student association and helping high school students in townships prepare for their exams. Do you still have time for such activities?
Although we might feel busy, we can always find time for extra-curricular activities. We should always find a way to give something back to the community, no matter what. I am currently involved in organizing the first West African Physical Society (WAPS) congress here in Burkina Faso, which we plan to hold from the end of July to the beginning of August. We hope to see some Nobel Laureates at this meeting to motivate the participants.
What do you hope to do next? Do you have a dream job in mind?
A priority for me is to focus on what I am currently doing as a lecturer and researcher. Before coming back home after my studies in South Africa, one of my biggest dreams was to contribute to boosting research in nanotechnology and photonics at home in Burkina Faso. I have not yet changed my mind about that, and I would love to collaborate with labs in other parts of the world, as well as talk to journalists. Journalists are vectors of information and therefore play a key role in the promotion of ideas. We absolutely need their support.
These days, young scientists face all sorts of difficulties in their careers, from competition for funding and isolation, to broken equipment and impostor syndrome. What have you found particularly challenging?
Unfortunately, we observe these problems particularly so in developing countries. From my point of view, all are challenging, particularly in Africa. Except in South Africa, which makes R&D a priority and has a good ranking at an international level, I am sorry to tell you that there is a serious lack of investment in R&D in Africa. This leads to the migration of our talent overseas. A few years back it was shown in a report that there are more African scientists and engineers working outside than on the continent.
What are the biggest challenges facing young physicists in your home country in particular? How do you think these challenges can be overcome?
Let me tell you the truth! We have issues that are even bigger than challenges, if I may say so. In addition to a lack of facilities, we do not have access to some of the materials needed for our research. For example, we cannot obtain certain gases including refrigerant for our experimental set ups. They are not authorised in Burkina Faso at the moment due to security and safety issues. How can we stimulate students with research while these barriers are in place? Don’t you think that all these barriers prevent us from scientific development? It is sad.
In a country like Burkina Faso, where everything ̶ education, health, infrastructure, agriculture ̶ is a priority, it is also quite difficult to find consistent funding for scientists. I think regional cooperation and collaboration between institutions could help with this. Initiatives such as the African Light Source project, for which I attended the first meeting in 2015, are encouraging. (Africa is currently the only habitable continent without a synchrotron, and the project is working long-term towards the construction of a facility, J.D.).
Do you have any advice for other early career scientists based on your experiences so far?
As early career scientists, we should have a vision and make a decision on who we want to become and what kind of life we want. There is absolutely no way to success without hard work. Challenges are made for us. Therefore, we should trust ourselves and ignore the naysayers. We should also be leaders. More importantly, we should never forget about taking care of our families. It would be suicide if your wife or kids looked at you like you were a stranger when you got home.
Which lectures or gatherings with a Nobel Laureate particularly impressed you when you came to Lindau in 2016?
I was particularly impressed by Vinton G. Cerf’s Heidelberg Lecture ‘The Origins and Evolution of the Internet‘. The internet’s predecessor was only used by researchers and the US military, but today the internet is essential in our daily communications. My second highlight was the closing panel discussion about education (‘The Future of Education in Sciences‘). When I look at the situation in my country, similar to other countries, I refer to what was said during the discussion: the future of a nation depends on how much of the population is educated and how well they are educated.
What impact did the Lindau Meeting have on your work, career or life?
The Lindau Meeting as a prestigious event has directly and indirectly impacted my life. I wouldn’t have been contacted or interviewed today if my name wasn’t in the Lindau database. When you publish this interview, thousands of people can know who I am.
My return back home was also partly motivated by encouragement from Nobel Laureates to be scientific ambassadors in our home countries. Having the Lindau Meeting on your CV can really make a difference to your career too.
Are you still in contact with people you met at the meeting?
Yes, I am still in touch with Lindau Alumni from Germany, Rwanda and South Africa. However, our conversations are more friendly than scientific. One of the Lindau objectives is to connect young scientists with each other, no matter where we come from and what background we have.
What can the participants of this year’s meeting particularly look forward to?
You will have the opportunity to meet the world-class scientists in physics. You will also get to experience Bavarian culture and the most exciting trip to Mainau for the closing ceremony.
What tips would you give to early career scientists coming to Lindau this year to make the most of the meeting?
Make sure you don’t miss the different sessions. Ask more questions to learn as much as you can. It is a great opportunity to connect with Nobel Laureates and get their advice. This will be useful in your future career. Make sure that you get your photo taken with any Nobel Laureates you meet!