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Researchers here and elsewhere: Meeting Burkina / China

Burkina / China Photos : N. St-Pierre / Inria

Aïda Ouangraoua began his studies in Burkina Faso, Gang Zheng began his in China. Their paths crossed at Inria where they both found a stimulating professional and social atmosphere.

What brought you to Inria?

Gang Zheng : After completing my Masters in information and systems at Wuhan University in China I was looking for a subject for my thesis. I had lots of friends who were in touch with French people through exchange programmes with French universities and a number of French companies that have invested in my home town. This allowed me to get in touch with Jean-Pierre Barbot from ENSEA. He suggested a research topic that I really liked which was the synchronisation of chaotic systems using Control Theory. I came to France in 2004 and I never left! I did a post-doctoral project in the Bipop team at the Inria centre in Grenoble then in the Casys team at the Jean Kuntzmann laboratory in Grenoble. I had the opportunity to meet the researchers from the Alien project team that were working in my field. That's what lead me to apply to Lille where I was appointed in 2009 in this team, that became the Non-A project team (shared with Centrale Lille, the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and Lille1 University*). Up to that point my work was essentially theoretical, but by working with Inria I was able to apply my work to robotics.

Aïda Ouangraoua : I came to Inria in the same year as Gang but in a very different way. When I was taking preparatory classes in Agadir to try and get a place in a French university I was particularly taken with the subjects that involved working in the laboratory programming. That's why I came to the Polytechnique Institute in Bordeaux to become a computer engineer. When I was studying, I had an internship with Pascal Ferraro at Labri in Bordeaux and he then became my thesis supervisor along with Serge Dulucq. That was when I was introduced to bioinformatics which I encountered again with two other mentors during my post-doctoral research, between 2007 and 2009, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver then at Quebec University in Montreal. These encounters gave me a passion for this field: I loved the multi-disciplinary aspect. I then applied to join Inria to work with other researchers from the Bonsai project team (shared with the CNRS and Lille 1 University**) who I got to know during conferences.

Is research organised differently here from in your home country or other countries where you have worked?

Aïda Ouangraoua : The research system in Burkina Faso is very similar to in France as it is inherited from colonisation. Researchers work especially in fields that are directly related to the needs of the country, i.e. with an emphasis on the social, economic and health fields and fundamental disciplines such as mathematics that do not need much investment. But I don't have any experience in this context. However, the organisation of research is very different from the system in Canada where research happens at university and teams are made up of lecturers and their students. This structure offers great independence but a lot of time is spent on managing the budget and the team.

Gang Zheng : In China, research teams may bring together several university lecturers or be made up one lecturer and their students, including Masters students who live on campus and must carry out research. The system is very similar to in the USA, that is to say that lecturers are only paid for their teaching time. To pay for their research, equipment, recruiting PhD students, etc. they need to find sources of financing, particularly from companies. A lot of their time is taken up with administrative problems and they have to do a lot of work.

What do you like about working at Inria?

Aïda Ouangraoua : Compared with these systems, particularly at Inria, we have access to lots of equipment for our work and we have excellent support which frees up a lot of time for research. The project assistants for example do a great job, but there is also a lot of help for technology transfer, to communicate about your research etc.

Gang Zheng : Inria does offer a lot of possibilities. For example, the engineers available, supplied by the ADTs, are really helpful for proving our results with software. Another essential factor is that you can choose your Research Department, collaborate with anyone you like and there are lots of opportunities to talk, such as during presentations and discussions organised at the centre. That allows you to know more about the other teams and to know who to turn to if you need something from a different field. From my point of view, this freedom is the biggest advantage of working at Inria.

Aïda Ouangraoua : I would add that working as a team and with teams from other disciplines is very stimulating and fosters the emergence of new projects. What's more, the cosmopolitan nature of Inria is very attractive to people from the outside world. It makes you want to come here.

Gang Zheng : Yes, particularly for those who don't speak French as they know they can speak in English. Inria is really an international institution. Over the last four years researchers from about fifteen countries have joined our team.

Do you stay in touch with your home country?

Gang Zheng : I am in the process of creating a link with Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, with the aim of collaborating on theoretical questions in my field. This is one of the best universities in China and the laboratory is very active. Every year it generates 7 to 8 million euros of projects and takes on a number of foreign researchers and students. I just got back from a three week stay at this laboratory and we are planning on submitting an exchange project for researchers and PhD students within the framework of the Marie-Curie programme from the European Commission.

Aïda Ouangraoua : I am particularly in touch with my Canadian colleagues at the moment but I plan to return regularly to Burkina Faso to give lessons and help to create projects with Ouagadougou  University as part of the North-South collaborations. This would be a way for me to let students benefit from everything I've learnt here and in Canada. As exiled researchers, we get a lot of encouragement from teachers in Burkina Faso who are now reaching retirement age to stay in contact.

What advice would you give to young people from your country who want to study or do research in France?

Aïda Ouangraoua : Actually, in the current political climate, most young people from Burkina Faso now go to North America or other European countries, even though it's easier to master the French language. Anybody who wants to come here needs to prepare their stay well by listening to those who came before them and finding grants and somewhere to stay. The financial aspect really is critical to students from Africa. Once you are here, you need to believe in yourself and persevere in spite of the difficulties and be ready to face up to negative talk. The important part is you also meet great people and you have to keep an open mind and make the most of experiences.

Gang Zheng : I agree with Aïda about preparing your stay well. It is easier for Chinese students in financial terms because the government finances lots of students studying abroad. For example our team works in relation with the central school in Lille that has special programmes with China and receives dozens of Chinese students every year. However, I have noted a serious problem with the young people that come over as part of this: they stay within their own community and do not mix with other PhD students. Communication with their thesis supervisor also seems to be one-way. They do not dare to argue with them. A young researcher needs to get past all that if they are to succeed.

* within the Joint research unit 8146 CNRS-Centrale Lille-Lille1 and LAGIS (Control Engineering, Computer Engineering and Signal Laboratory).

** within the Joint research unit 8022 CNRS-Lille1-Lille3-Inria and LIFL