Funding creates once in a lifetime mentoring opportunity

The OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative announced its first 10 research chair holders in October. It is funded through a partnership between South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the national research grant-making councils of the countries hosting the chairholders. The initiative will see chairs share almost US$15 million over five years.

In the first of a series of interviews University World News spoke to Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Gizaw Mengistu Tsidu at Botswana International University of Science and Technology, one of the research chair holders.

UWN: Where did you grow up and attend primary and secondary school?

Tsidu: I was born in a small rural village called Bucho near Gedeb Asasa town, located in a province formerly known as Arsi in Ethiopia. I completed primary and junior secondary school at Asasa Burkitu Junior Secondary School over a period of only six years. I then went to Asella Comprehensive High School in Asella town, about 108 km from my birthplace.

UWN: At school, was there any specific moment that placed you on the path to becoming a research chair?

Tsidu: I had a desire to impress my classmates and parents, and to fulfil my desire for knowledge. In those years of my primary and secondary school education (from 1975 to 1984), not much information was available except for limited reference books and newspapers at two public and one school library in Asella. It was unlike today, when my 15-year-old son has a clearly defined aspiration already, based on plenty of information from electronic media, an aspiration I could only define during my senior year in university.

UWN: Where did you do your undergrad studies, and in what field?

Tsidu: My first degree was a physics major and mathematics minor with distinction from the department of physics at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, in 1989. I also received an MSc from the same department. In 2004, I got my PhD in atmospheric physics from the faculty of physics at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Karlsruhe, Germany.

UWN: How did your undergraduate studies prepare you for research? When did you become interested in your current specialisation area?

Tsidu: My undergraduate studies were very intensive. The course load was between 18 to 21 credit hours per semester. Moreover, most of the courses in mathematics were demanding, and more focused on theoretical aspects than on applications. I was trained by professors from Ethiopia, Russia, India, Ukraine and Cuba. I took two courses in meteorology during my final years of the undergraduate study preparing for my current work.

I secured a job with the Ethiopian National Meteorology Agency as a junior forecaster after graduation in 1989. I got postgraduate training in India in 1991 and 1992 and later became a meteorologist for two more years. This training was a stepping stone for me to pursue further training and research in atmospheric and climate sciences.

UWN: What could be done to develop research capacity at undergraduate level already?

Tsidu: Good research can be done right from undergraduate years given the availability of the required resources. Access to research laboratories and computational facilities should be increased. Student to staff ratios should be low, and the teaching load also. In other words, there should be a shift from quantity to quality.

The training from first to third year should be organised in order to develop problem-solving skills, including mathematical skills and critical thinking such as analysis and synthesizing. Independent projects in the form of seminars or reports with proper mentoring support should increase.

UWN: If you could change or ask for one thing, looking back on your academic life, what would that be?

Tsidu: Access to graduate training in many parts of Africa was not easy in the past. Most of the people at my age sought graduate training abroad on their own by competing for a handful of available scholarships, research and teaching assistantship opportunities every year with people from all over the world. You can imagine how competitive it was. Most of my peers, including myself, wasted part of their productive age looking for opportunities. I am not complaining, but I am simply imagining what I would have achieved compared to what I have achieved now.

I have been keen on reaching out to the young generations so that they get the opportunity to excel and give back to their community. I have already trained over 50 MScs and 10 PhDs in the last two decades in Ethiopia and Botswana. The OR Tambo Africa Research Chair Initiative will give me a better opportunity to expand the training and improve the quality of training and research.

UWN: Why is your field of research important?

Tsidu: Climate change is the number one single threat to humanity and the climate system in the 21st century: temperature rise, sea level rise, more extreme weather such as drought, floods, heat waves and rising carbon dioxide levels. My research contributes towards improved understanding of a few of these challenges in order to develop appropriate mitigation and adaptation options in some of the economic sectors, such as water resources, wildlife and tourism, agriculture and animal husbandry.

UWN: What specifically will you be working on?

Tsidu: The first problem is on climate change and risk assessment associated with climate extremes. To achieve this, we will address the overarching data gaps and research problems identified in the region, which include climate data management and monitoring, and development of climate change scenarios; monitoring systems to address climate change impacts; and socio-economic consequences of the loss of ecosystems.

Firstly, we will digitise observations that are currently on paper, and develop grids and data gap filling. This is followed by drought characterisation to help water resources planning and management by identifying drought mitigation actions from an overall risk analysis.

UWN: How do you see your research developing thanks to this fund?

Tsidu: We will acquire high-performance computing facilities, equipment for our biotechnology group, train 17 MSc students and 13 PhDs, and create research opportunity and mentorship for several emerging scientists over a period of five years.

We will collaborate with leading scientists from the region and the world and have access to and publish our findings in top international journals. This eventually leads to development of strong research universities and the human capital development required in Sub-Saharan Africa. So the benefit of the funding is enormous. Personally, my research will greatly benefit from access to new computing and laboratory resources, collaboration and the flexibility this funding brings.

UWN: What would you be able to do with the grant that was not possible in the past?

Tsidu: Training of graduate students and mentoring of emerging scientists could not be done without this fund. Most of the proposed research is tied to the availability of computational and laboratory resources, recruitment of graduate students and emerging scientists. We also have plans to transfer the knowledge and skills to the community which cannot be done without this funding. In short, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that my group wants to use wisely.