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SISTEM® one-on-one with Dr. Ibrahim I. Cisse, Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT: "At the leading edge of Biophysics".

Ibrahim Cisse

Ibrahim Cissé joined the Department of Physics at MIT in January 2014, from HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus where he had been in the Transcription Imaging Consortium since January 2013. Prior to this, he was in Paris from January 2010 to December 2012, at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris, jointly in the departments of Physics and Biology, as a Pierre Gilles de Gennes fellow and a European Molecular Biology Organization long-term fellow. He received his PhD from the Physics Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December 2009. His graduate training was in single-molecule biophysics under Prof. Taekjip Ha, focusing on weak and transient interactions in vitro. He received his B.S. in Physics in 2004 from North Carolina Central University, and during that time he was investigating packing of ellipsoids using M&M candies with Paul M. Chaikin. Ibrahim is native of Niger, where he lived before moving to the US for college.

Q: Please tell us about yourself including your educational background and the reasons that led you to pursue a career in STEM.

Cisse: I grew up in Niger, where I remained until I finished high-school. Then I came to the U.S. for college. Ultimately, I completed my Bachelor of Sciences in Physics at North Carolina Central University, then my PhD in Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. My research insterest is at the frontier between Physics and Biology. After my PhD, I was at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where I held a Pierre Gilles de Gennes fellowship (in Physics) and a European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO, in Biology) fellowship. I then returned to the US, where I spent several months at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus before starting my lab in the Physics Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.

Q: Can you share a few words about your position, and in simple words, how would you describe the type of research you do as well as its importance?

Cisse: I am currently an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT. In my laboratory we develop highly sensitive methods of microscopy that enable us to study biological processes with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolutions directly in living cells. By studying the dynamics of single biomolecules, we can finally start to uncover how our genome self-regulates in living cells. We could for instance hope to understand the subtle differences between a normal cellular function and when things go awry in difficult to understand situations like cancer or neurological disorders.

Q: Nigeria and South Africa are undeniably two of Africa's economic powerhouses, yet they still face some challenges, as many other African countries do, in regards to low scientific literacy, especially amongst girls and women. In your opinion, how can Nigeria and South Africa (as well as the rest of Africa by extension) address head on the issue of STEM as it relates particularly to: (a) education, (b) health care, and (c) economic development in general?

Cisse: In my naïve thoughts, I like to think of South Korea as a model. In 1960, just as many African countries were winning the fight for independence, South Korea was barely recovering from a devastating war, and much poorer than many countries in Africa. The country made STEM education and hard work their two priorities. It made sense that even without much natural resources, a highly trained STEM population can catalyze the growth needed for the country. Focusing on education helped income inequalities fall, and democracy grew stronger in the country. Today, it went from a country that trailed behind many African nations in the 60’s, to being the global economic super-power that gives us Samsung, LG, Hyundai… And need I add that Her Excellency Geun-hye Park, the current president of the republic of Korea holds an engineering degree?

I’m not suggesting that South Korea would be an exact template for modern African countries to follow, nor that every African woman who aspires to highest office should try and get a STEM degree (though, on a second thought, why not?). I just think there are interesting lessons to be learned about what role STEM education can do in a few short decades, if STEM education is prioritized as the center-piece of an economic development plan. Not just in Nigeria or South Africa which both seem to heavily rely on the exploitation of soil-resources, but in general, it seems many developing countries make the mistake of viewing Science education as an accessory rather than the necessary solution. History shows us, time and time again, that prioritizing education first, and STEM education in particular, seems to be the minimum pre-requisite to a fast a resilient economic and social development.

Q: In your estimation, what are the critical steps educational policymakers should undertake to bridge the scientific and technological gap in America and to increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans in STEM studies, careers and businesses?

Cisse: I find the out-of-pocket cost of education to be one factor not often enough talked about in the under-representation within STEM fields. I wonder, how would our society look like if every STEM student can attend school free of charge?

Q: Finally, what advice do you have for parents of students of color in particular, whose children (K-12) want to pursue STEM studies and careers? What about recommendations and tips for college students who have problems balancing their social lives and STEM studies?

Cisse: Please do provide them with all the support and encouragement they need. STEM studies demand rigor and dedication, and it is a life of service that will benefit us all in the longer run!

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