We are Pursuing Ambitious Goals, says Nazarbayev University Provost

Nazarbayev University is ready for a new stage in its development, emphasising not only education but scientific research as well. Scientific research should be carried out in line with the relevant objectives of society’s on-going development and help in addressing global challenges.

Dr. Adesida Ilesanmi

This is the opinion of Nazarbayev University’s Provost Dr. Adesida Ilesanmi, who took office in September. In international academic circles, he is known as a successful scholar and administrator. Prior to his appointment, Ilesanmi served as Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (USA).

Ilesanmi, who received his PhD in Electrical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, served as a research associate and visiting assistant professor at Cornell University. He joined the ranks of the University of Illinois in 1987, where he was a Professor of Engineering Sciences and Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as special advisor on international programmes and director of the micro- and nanotechnology laboratory and Centre for Nanoscale Sciences and Technologies. He also worked on a number of national academy committees and was a member of the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

The Astana Times posed a few questions to exchange views on the links between research and education at Nazarbayev University.

 

Dr. Ilesanmi, what are your first impressions of Kazakhstan?

I have the most positive feeling about what I’ve seen. The Kazakhs proved to be genial and open-hearted people; it is always a pleasure to communicate with them. I should admit I already feel like a Kazakh to a certain degree!

 

What was the first thing that drew your attention at Nazarbayev University?

Over the last month, I managed to meet a lot of people. The first thing that caught my eye was the fact that Nazarbayev University educates open-minded, smart and talented students.

I came to this conclusion as well at the first meeting with Nazarbayev University alumni. By the way, the university has educated two flows of graduates, which is over a thousand people (447 in 2015, 621 in 2016). I saw bright and open-minded people who are ready and eager to work. Most of them have already demonstrated some achievements. Among 514 employed graduates, 25 became entrepreneurs in such spheres as management, healthcare, telecommunications, etc. Each of them presented their business projects providing details on how they were developed. Why am I focusing on graduates? Because they are our “product” that shows our performance.

Of course, the main goal of the university is to give good knowledge and educate the youth. However, another aspect is of great importance as well – educating leaders in different spheres, no matter whether it is engineering, science, technologies or humanities.

Being a newcomer to Nazarbayev University and looking at these guys, I can assure that the university has done a lot; the education process proved to be a good one. I think that Nazarbayev University has reached its first stages of development. Now, we can talk about raising the bar and entering a new stage by more actively involving science into the development of academic education.

 

Last year, Nazarbayev University was recognised by the Kazakh government as a research university, confirming that the university successfully integrates research into the educational process. How will the university evolve in this context?

Gaining the status of a research university is a notable recognition, but the most important thing is what we build on the existing basis. Over a short period of university’s activity – only six years by now – teachers and research associates of Nazarbayev University have already published more than a thousand articles in international peer-reviewed journals. About 70 percent of the articles were published in partnership between Nazarbayev University’s teachers and researchers and international scholars. This shows a high level of involvement of the university with the world’s academic community. About 11 percent of Nazarbayev University’s scientific articles are among the top 10 percent of publications referenced in relevant scientific fields in the world. Currently, the university implements 213 scientific projects that is also quite a high indicator for such a young university.

How will we proceed? One of the main vectors of the university’s activity is search for and attraction of high-ranked professors who are able to teach and share experience with the young generation in conducting research. By that I mean professional, efficient research that will be beneficial for the country and nation in terms of economic and human development as well as improving environment and other climate-related factors influencing human life. This should be research that is able to change to a certain degree the paradigm of scientific and research activity in the state as a whole. It is important to realise that any university, not only in Kazakhstan, that is directly involved in research activities should first address relevant challenges of citizens of the country it is based in and maybe regional problems.

The second goal we are to fulfil is building a proper model of interaction between a younger generation of scholars and that of more mature highly-qualified professors who will use their wealth of experience to help their younger peers to pursue qualitative research and channel them in the right direction. This is a so-called mentorship, the aim of which is that young scientists, for example Bolashak presidential scholarship’s graduates and others having returned to Kazakhstan, could continue their research, become professors and obtain relevant patents.

That is why we are planning to invite Bolashak PhD students and graduates to integrate their research into our processes and interconnect this process with the goals that are acute for the economic development of Kazakhstan. To make it a single chain that unites all the parts to meet the goals in the interest of Kazakhstan. Of course, our goal is ambitious. We are aware of that. But we will try our best!

The third task is obtaining, as a result, patents for research and commercialisation of projects for the benefit of the country. This will prove that the university is choosing the right direction in research.

 

Being a man of science, you know what material framework and infrastructure is needed to conduct research. How do you assess the current state of the university?

Those who are at our campus for the first time may think that the university is already 20 years old because part of its infrastructure is already built and being used to the full. However, our university is like a child in its actual age. We are just making our first steps.

Several buildings used primarily for research purposes will be put into operation… in 2017. This means that in terms of infrastructure, Nazarbayev University is mostly prepared for pursuing more advanced scientific research. We are planning to invite top scientists to the university so that they assess our infrastructure and, maybe, put forward proposals to equip laboratories and rooms aimed at advancing qualitative scientific and research activity. It is important that these scientists, having visited the country, get interested in the university’s activities and want to stay here in order to conduct the research this country needs.

 

In your opinion, what are the most relevant spheres for research at Nazarbayev University?

There are many of them. Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources, and the goal of some research could be to use them for bringing more profit and benefit to the nation. Moreover, Kazakhstan is located along the Silk Road, which is seeing some kind of revival. The university can pursue research aimed at studying changes in Kazakhstan related to its status as part of the Silk Road Economic Belt projects.

We have opportunities to prove ourselves in other fields as well. For example, Nazarbayev University’s schools train experts in business, public policy, science and technology, engineering, international relations, education and other fields. In short, each element of Nazarbayev University’s structure is ready to make its contribution to the progress of this nation.

For us, it is relevant to improve the legislative framework of scientific research activities because now there are numerous barriers related to human and material resources.

Another urgent issue in terms of developing science is the need to fine-tune the process of commercialising some research activity. Nazarbayev University pays special attention to these issues.

I thoroughly studied the policy paper [on the “100 Concrete Steps” plan of massive institutional reforms] where Nazarbayev University is given a significant role, particularly in the development of the Astana Business Campus innovative cluster. This cluster will host scientific centres and laboratories for scientific and research projects as well as research and development projects and their further commercialisation. In 2016, Nazarbayev University opened a cleanroom that meets international standards for producing medical products.

 

The EXPO 2017 site sits just in front of your campus. How do scientists and students at the university participate in this national project, in the development of new energy technologies?

Of course, we won’t remain apart from this large-scale project, and Nazarbayev University conducts research related to energy. One of the Engineering School’s professors, Zhumabay Bakenov, is carrying out extensive research into energy issues, and some of his projects will be presented at EXPO 2017. The key element of his research is developing equipment for energy conversion and storage, such as advanced rechargeable batteries and fuel cells, which play a significant role in all spheres of life in our society. It is important for us that we are not only carrying out scientific research but also planning its further commercialisation.

At the same time, about 500 student members of the Nazarbayev University Volunteer Club will participate in the exhibition and help guests feel comfortable at the expo.

 

What is your top priority in your new position?

Before coming here, of course, I analysed my life. I asked myself a question: Why should I go to Kazakhstan and be involved in such a project? Personally, I am interested in the development of international education, and the second important aspect for me is the development of human potential. I see very skillful and ambitious students striving to do better: this is the key element of development. I want to try to integrate the education process, science and production through increasing the human capital level – which should for sure lead to the growth of Nazarbayev University.

The university trains specialists not only for Kazakhstan, but experts of the international level as well. For example, 11 of our first graduates work at such large international companies as Schlumberger (in Russia and Ghana), Cisco Systems International B.V. (in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands), Step to Web LLC (Russia), Procter & Gamble (Poland), Continental AG (Russia), Booking.com (the Netherlands), International Civil Aviation Organisation (in the  UN and Canada) and one graduate works at an embassy of Kazakhstan. More than 500 graduates of Nazarbayev University are employed inside Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev University is not a separate closed establishment existing by itself. The university has already built various partnerships in scientific and education spheres in Kazakhstan and internationally. This is a process of continuous development. That is why this new position for me is an opportunity to be actively involved in implementing the ambitious goals set before Nazarbayev University and contribute to its development.