Growing up in Africa, Roland Pongou was struck by the high incidence of HIV/AIDS on the continent.
Of the nearly 34 million people globally suffering from the disease, 22 million are in sub-Sahara Africa and almost 60 per cent are women.
The devastating impact of the scourge prompted Pongou to devote his research to come up with answers as to why women are more infected than men and why the disease is prevalent in sub-Saharan countries.
An assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, Pongou’s research examines the formation of networks of individuals who relish having many partners but do not want them to have other partners. He characterizes these networks through various assumptions about individual rationality and social norms and his research highlights how differences in gender relations lead to different sexual networks.
“I have applied my findings to the formation of sexual networks, providing insights into how the geometry of these networks determine the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as the gender gap in HIV/AIDS prevalence in different societies and cultures,” said Cameroon-born Pongou who is one of five recipients of the prestigious Polanyi Prize for research in the field of economic science.
“The gender gap in HIV/AIDS is essentially determined by the configurations of sexual networks and these configurations differ across cultures and societies due to differences in the intensity of discrimination against women, marriage norms and social inequality.”
Pongou, 37, said his research shows that sexual networks present a pattern in which few men share all the women, regardless of whether women are faithful or not.
“Therefore, an infected man can infect several women while an infected woman can only infect a few men,” he said. “This explains why women are disproportionately affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic relative to men in this part of the world (sub-Sahara Africa)…In North America where women have achieved a greater level of equality with men, heterosexual networks have become more egalitarian which means that infidelity is a behaviour which is as present in women as it is in men. Therefore, women can infect their male partners just as much as men can infect their female partners. This leads to HIV/AIDS being equally prevalent in men and women in heterosexual networks.”
The $20,000 Polanyi Prize was established by the provincial government to honour the achievement of Hungarian-born John Polanyi who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research in chemical kinetics.
“It’s such an honour to be awarded this Prize,” said Pongou who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Mathematics from the University of Yaoundé and a Master’s in Economics from Brown University. “To me, this award recognizes the importance of fundamental research in providing insight into some of the most crucial problems of our society like infidelity and HIV/AIDS.”
The recipient of the Young Researcher of the Year Award and a $55,000 scholarship from the Social Sciences & Humanities Council, Pongou came to Canada after securing his PhD. three years ago from Brown University in Rhode Island.
“I have always being fascinated by Canada’s values, openness and other cultures,” he said. “The reason I chose to teach at the University of Ottawa is because it reflects the great values of this country. As an academic institution, it fosters innovative research and nurtures young researchers. I am very grateful for its unstinting support of my research.”