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Mathematics across borders: Peter Stevenhagen in Pakistan

Peter Stevenhagen delivered daily lectures at the Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering in Lahore, in collaboration with ICTP, a well-known UNESCO institute in Trieste. The aim is to enhance it he knowledge of students from low- and middle-income countries. ‘By teaching here, I can truly make a contribution.’

What exactly did you do in Pakistan?

‘I taught algebra lectures within the International Mathematics Master (IMM) at the University of Lahore. By the way, my students were not only Pakistani, also students from other countries. In addition, I  gave lectures on campus and at Lahore Women’s College University. The now 96-year-old founder of the university, Syed Babar Ali, who amassed a fortune in the industry and maintained good contacts with our royal family, invited me to his company for lunch.’

How did they come to you?

‘After my PhD in California, I worked in France, and I have been involved in international projects and organisations for a long time. For more than a decade, I have been teaching in research schools of CIMPA, a French mathematics organisation operating in Asia, Africa and South America. As a member of the Developing Countries Committee of the European Mathematical Society (EMS), I advocate for Dutch involvement. From the Mathematical Institute, Charlene Kalle is also participating this year.

Our mathematics master’s in Leiden has been very international for a long time. With Bas Edixhoven and French and Italian partners, I set up ALGANT in 2004. That has now grown into a consortium of eight international universities, of which I am the director. We offer a joint master’s programme in algebra, number theory and geometry. On 12 July2024 the 18th Graduation Ceremony will take place in the Grand Auditorium with all partners together. We will also be celebrating our 20th anniversary then.’

Students sitting in the classroom at the university of Lahore
Peters students in Lahore

What is the state of mathematics in Pakistan?

Unlike fields such as law or social psychology, mathematics is uniform worldwide. I teach exactly the same algebra in Lahore as I do in Leiden, using my own Leiden syllabi. All of these have now been translated into English for use outside of Leiden. For Pakistani students, pursuing a PhD in Europe or the US is challenging. There is a political force field, and right now their knowledge is often not sufficient. This master’s programme help address that, and so does ALGANT.’

What is it like to work in these countries?

‘Every country has its own languages, traditions, and customs, which I like. It’s always a bit of exploring, but that’s part of the attraction for me. Talking about algebra comes very easily to me, and once you’re in conversation with people, more personal things come naturally.

‘Life is not much different from ours at the faculty.’

Last year, I taught in Iraqi Kurdistan, where military conflicts had been fought not so long before. As in Lahore, however, on the campus in Erbil, life was not that much different from ours at the faculty. There are more similarities than differences. And it helps you put things into perspective. Suddenly you are a minority yourself and you look different as the only non-Muslim. I can recommend such an experience to everyone.

Political systems differ, but people are alike everywhere. The issues in countries like Pakistan are not quite the same as ours. In rural areas, it is still about whether women can even go to university. I had an extensive conversation with a student from neighbouring country Afghanistan. She had managed to flee when in her home country all higher education for women was abolished within a year. Her female classmates from the engineering school in Kabul are now all sitting at home. Another neighbouring country is Iran, where the situation is completely different again.’

You open a window to the world for people.

What does this bring you?

‘I hope to make the world a little better this way, on a small scale. A student I had met ten years ago at a CIMPA school in Manila conducted the tutorials at my course earlier this year when I was back in Manila to teach. In the meantime, he got his PhD through ALGANT in Leiden and Bordeaux. Another example is one of the students from Kurdistan, an Iranian woman who will hopefully be walking around here next year as an ALGANT student. That involves a lot of arranging, including housing. But we can make a big difference here with relatively little money. You open a window to the world for people.

In Leiden, I have always done a lot of administrative work. This work abroad is different, and more challenging for me now. Of course, it is a drop in the ocean, but it gives a good feeling. If you have enough time, very valuable things can grow from these initiatives.

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