Rwandan Student Develops IT Ex...

Rwandan Student Develops IT Expertise to Help Achieve Nation's Goals

In 2000, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame laid out a bold course of action for his nation to reach middle-income status by 2020.[1] Nicknamed “The Digital President,” Kagame’s plan focuses on Rwanda’s human capital, with special attention to its students, along with development of information technology and communications. Rwanda, and other African nations will require skilled scientists, technicians, engineers, and researchers to help these countries achieve their desired economic goals and intellectual capacity. Currently, however, the World Bank reports that African scientists and engineers fill fewer than 10% of these jobs.

Part of Rwanda’s plan to address these needs was to create the Rwandan Presidential Scholars Program. The program identifies the best and brightest young students in the country, sending select individuals to the United States on 4-year, undergraduate scholarships. The scholarships ensure that the nation’s leading students have an opportunity to gain an education, explains Fabrice Mizero, a Presidential Scholar attending Philander Smith College. In turn, students are expected to return to Rwanda, bringing their newly developed expertise back to share with existing leadership and new generations.

“Students remain in the United States, working on their degree for two years, straight. After this, students typically go back to Rwanda for at least six weeks in the summer to do an internship, building on what they’ve learned in a real-world environment,” explains Mizero. “But I had an opportunity to spend the summer in Boulder as part of the Summer Internships in Parallel Computational Science (SIParCS) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).”

NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory (CISL) hosts a number of students each year, pairing students with computer scientists and engineers. Critical to the SIParCS experience is working on real-world computing issues under the guidance of seasoned experts.

As part of SIParCS recruiting and community building for NCAR and CISL, Stephanie Barr, CISL’s Diversity Coordinator, discussed the internship opportunity with Philander Smith College students. With limited background in high-performance computing, but understanding that technology was the nation’s focus and having a strong desire to bring back that knowledge that his country needs, Mizero applied for a spot in the program. This choice meant giving up a visit to home, family, and friends, but his mother encouraged Mizero to stay in the United States after he’d been accepted to the program.

John Dennis, a computer scientist within CISL, acted as mentor to Mizero. Dennis likes working with smart, eager students who, while they may be less experienced, have a strong academic record and, most importantly, great recommendations.

“Fabrice received outstanding recommendations from his professors; their input was a required part of the application process,” says Dennis. “While Fabrice had learned a number of programming languages in school, before SIParCS he had worked only in a Windows environment, never with UNIX, or with parallel programming, which are used in the Yellowstone environment, NCAR’s supercomputer.”

“During my first weeks, John recommended that I attend software carpentry tutorials offered to NCAR/CISL employees,” says Mizero. “These tutorials introduced me to programming using Python, which I ended up using a lot for my project. By the end of the summer, I was accustomed to using Unix, scripting with Python, and had a handle on networking concepts and other technologies and techniques that make coding easier.”

“Fabrice’s project focused issues related to computing faults. For example, when a node failure or a cable problem occurs in the high-performance message-passing network of Yellowstone, the routing table must be recalculated. All message traffic within the network is potentially delayed or dropped during the recalculation of the routing tables. Fabrice’s task was to determine the impact of this recalculation on application performance,” explains Dennis.

A National Science Foundation grant, “SDCI-Net: An integrated study of datacenter networking and 100 GigE wide-area networking in support of distributed scientific computing,” supported this work. In addition to Mizero, Zhengyan Liu, a University of Virginia (UVA) graduate student participated on the same project, which offered additional mentoring for Mizero, as well as one-on-one teaching experience for Liu.

“Fabrice rapidly acquired new knowledge and appeared to really enjoy performing research,” says Dennis. 

The research experience and UVA teaming also helped Mizero make decisions about his next academic steps. Technically a junior, Mizero will graduate in May of 2014. With this in mind, Dennis encouraged him to consider graduate school and came up with a list of excellent universities that would provide a venue in which he could excel. Among the suggested universities was UVA; Mizero applied for and was accepted into a PhD program in UVA’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. His PhD advisor is a collaborator on the SDCI-Net project, as well as Liu’s advisor.   

A highlight of the summer for Mizero was his end-of-internship talk. Among those in the audience was Tom Bogdan, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s president. After Mizero’s talk, Bogdan commended Mizero for making a complex topic engaging and easy to understand by using visualizations and imagery to communicate the team’s findings. This comment from the leader of NCAR’s managing body, says Mizero says, made his summer.

Among Mizero’s immediate plans is a return to the SIParCS program in 2014, along with his fellow Philander student and Rwandan compatriot, Theo Nsengimana. In addition to the academic opportunities and professional experiences, the two hope to find time to hike Colorado’s hills. While Rwanda has a similar landscape, people tend to walk to simply to get from Point A to B, while in Boulder, hiking is a hobby that Mizero says he would like to cultivate. Beyond this summer and his time at UVA, Mizero hopes return to Rwanda, becoming a professor once he’s finished his PhD, bringing back the knowledge he’s gained at NCAR, UVA, and Philander to help his own and future generations meet Kagame’s technological goal.

[1] Rwanda Vision 2020 lays this out as per capita income reaching approximately US$900 per year by 2020, as compared to US$220 USD in 2000. See,