Sitting in the 10x10 office, my focus firmly rooted on upcoming production trips to Uganda and Egypt, Sierra Leone suddenly feels so far away. But only last week, I was braving the Freetown heat, capturing the first meeting between 10x10 writer, Aminatta Forna and our Sierra Leonean girl, 16-year-old, Mariama.

Mariama turned sixteen last month and by many accounts, she resembles any urban teenage girl. She is glued to her mobile phone, preoccupied with her hair, her clothes, and pop-culture. She is, however, equally interested in science and impressed us with her way around a velocity equation. Sure, my physics is a bit rusty, but I’m fairly sure that even at my peak, I couldn’t solve the “rate of x” with Mariama’s speed and confidence.

So, when Mariama shares her dream to become a research scientist within the ranks of Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick, I reply, optimistically, “Why not?!” An eyeful of Mariama’s physics lab, though, answers my rhetorical question. Overcrowded classes of 70, absentee teachers, insufficient and broken equipment, decades-old textbooks—it’s a challenging environment in which to develop fertile minds. This scenario is all the more disheartening considering that Mariama attends St. Joseph’s, one of the best government secondary schools in Sierra Leone. She was awarded a scholarship here because she excelled in primary school and it was clear that St. Joseph’s would afford Mariama better educational opportunities than her local secondary. What stirs a certain frustration, though, is that the “best,” in this case, isn’t enough; that Mariama, and the 15% of Sierra Leonean girls who defy the odds by making it to secondary school, face still more hurdles when it comes to realizing their dreams.

They are learning; that much is evident. But what could they achieve if they had the resources to learn to their fullest potential? A Bunsen burner for every pair of students instead of every 15; teachers who actually come to class; textbooks to take home; exams that don’t cost a fee. These shouldn’t be pipe dreams— but in Sierra Leone, they are. It is important to understand the context of the situation, to understand that Sierra Leone’s education system—once storied in Africa—was essentially decimated by the recent civil war, which ended in 2001. Ten years of conflict destroyed 80% of the educational infrastructure across the country and left 67 % of all school-age children out of school. The fact that by 2007 this percentage had been reduced to 30% is no small feat.

Mariama and her classmates pour over problem sets undeterred by these facts, ready to learn despite their uninspiring surroundings. This first generation of post-war Sierra-Leonean students is living proof that access to education is just the fist step in building human capacity. In Sierra Leone, as everywhere, the second step towards building an economy of innovation and entrepreneurship must be investing in the quality of education.

So despite the decaying halls and complacent teachers, I decide to remain optimistic that recent progress won’t lose momentum. Mariama and her peers deserve as much. The future Newtons, Mandelas, and Chopins of the country depend on it.