Maths, coca, and talent

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

A conflict between Ecuador and Colombia around the spraying of herbicides on coca fields helped to jump start mathematics in Ecuador in 2007. The main character of this story, Ecuadorian mathematician Hermann Mena, explained it Tuesday afternoon at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

Mena, who is now 35 and an assistant professor at Innsbruck University (Austria), became a mathematician almost by chance. When he was 12 – a child from a humble family of Otavalo, the capital of the native communities of Ecuador –a teacher told him he was not good for maths, because he had not done his homework. “At the end of high school, I planned to become a medical doctor. Instead I was pushed to mathematics by a psychologist astounded at my outcome in a maths aptitude test”, says Mena.

Hermann Mena Credit: hlff / Flemming
Hermann Mena Credit: hlff / Flemming

He attracted a lot of attention as a university student at the Escuela Politécnica Nacional (Quito), when he formulated and demonstrated a theorem that had not been taught at lesson, but was necessary to solve an exam exercise assigned by mistake to his class. Later, during his PhD in mathematics, he became the first Ecuadorian whose thesis results have been published in international journals. He demonstrated the existence of multiple solutions of an elliptical partial differential equation used to model solar flares.

At the time of his PhD defence, in 2007, scientific production in maths was very low in Ecuador, with no support by government and industry, and just a little by international cooperation. “I went to Germany three times during my PhD, and then I visited the MIT as a postdoc”, says Mena.

Nearly the same time, in 2008 the Ecuadorian government issued the first funded call for science projects in the country. President Rafael Correa in person was the one to select the projects to be funded. Mena heard about this and thought of a science topic that could be of special interest for his state. “These days news about the conflict between Ecuador and Colombia about coca-fields spraying were every day in the newspaper, and I thought that a mathematical approach could help to make things clear”, says Mena.

In 2000, Colombia had started using planes to spray the herbicide Glyphosate on coca-fields as an anti-drug measure. But this substance has negative impacts on health and agriculture. In 2005 Ecuador signed an agreement with Colombia to stop the sprays in a 10 km (6 miles) corridor along the border between the two countries. But in 2007 Ecuador sued Colombia at the International Court of Justice, claiming the pacts were not respected.

Mena’s scientific interests had shifted then to optimal control, a branch of applied mathematics that tackles issues like e.g. “how much water must be deviated from a river to reduce its level and avoid it flooding a city?”. In fact, this specific question applied to the river Elba is one of Mena’s current subjects of research. A similar approach could be applied to the Glyphosate problem: by measuring evidence of its presence on earth, one could derive the likely trajectory of the planes that had sprayed it.

Let’s look back to 2008: Mena submitted the project to the Ecuadorian government’s call, and it became the only basic science project to be funded. In 2013, the International Court of Justice established a dispute settlement mechanism that resulted in Colombia agreeing to pay a 15 Million US dollars penalty.

“But the project had also a relevant impact on mathematics research in my country,”, says Mena. A supercomputing centre and a government funded research group was established at the Escuela Politécnica Nacional. “Scientific production has increased since, and we have refunded the national mathematics society, that has joined IMU this year”, says Mena.

His personal pathway was less lucky, since he failed being appointed by the university after a controversial selection process. But he immediately found a position in Austria. “My advice to young mathematicians in developing countries is to endure. Set your own goals, without waiting for somebody else to set them. Even if the circumstances are difficult, doing research is possible: I obtained 90% of my results in Ecuador”, Mena concludes.

More about the project on Imaginary

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Michele Catanzaro has a PhD in Physics and has been working for more than a decade as a science journalist, writing about science, environment, health, technology, and science policy – Nature, The Guardian, El Periódico, Le Scienze and more. He is the author of the book "Networks: A Very Short Introduction" and the co-author of the documentary "Fast-track injustice" (2014). Catanzaro also has experiences as a TV script writer, press officer and lecturer. For his works he was honored with several awards. Currently he is the 2014 journalist in residence at the Heidelberg Institut for Theoretical studies, HITS. More about Michele on his website or follow him on Twitter @mcatanzaro.

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