Ben Mapani

Sector: Academia

Field: Education

Occupation: Professor

Meet Ben Mapani, Associate Professor of Geology, University of Namibia (click here for full audio interview)

Tell me your earliest memory of being interested in science.

That happened at Primary school, when we were learning about chameleons, frogs and giraffes. Y interest grew at High School where I started star gazing seriously.

Explain the steps you took to have a career path in academia or research. 

The path I took was not a direct one;  I completed my Bachelor Honors Degreein 1986 and worked as a Regional Mapping Geologist, producing 1:100 000 scale geological maps for the four years of my career. This gave me so much experience in field work and petrology, geochemistry and economic geology. I then went to France at Ecole de Geologie, in Nancy, where I obtained a Masters in Geostatistics and Geochemistry. A year later in 1991, I went for my Ph.D. studies in Australia, at the University of Melbourne. I completed in 1994 and went into Academia at the University of Zambia. From there I went to teach in a Masters Programme in Exploration Geology at the University of Zimbabwe in 1998; thereafter I moved to the University of Namibia in 2003; where I am still based. In this long process, I have had a number of Ph.D. and M.Sc. students who have been under my tutelage.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

The biggest obstacles were financial. Coming from a low income social group, it was not easy to raise funds for university education. Fortunately I qualified for a University scholarship from the Zambian Government based on my High school grades.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

In this profession you need analytical skills, this is core; in addition you need some mathematical skills, chemistry and physics area necessity; computer skills, a little bit of programming is helpful; writing skills and presentation skills to showcase your work and communication skills to communicate your research; you also need people skills as you are likely to interact and work with a diverse group of people especially on field trips.

Describe the most exciting part of your research or teaching.

My research has been in climate science, environmental geology and geochronology. Currently we are looking at tree rings as archives for past climate fluctuations; unearthing the cyclicity of climate over the past 200 years as observed from stable isotope data and tree ring data in semi arid to arid environments of Namibia.  This has opened a window on how vegetation has evolved from open grasslands to shrubby and forest type and back towards open savannas. We are currently in a transition zone. We have also observed the patterns of precipitation in the region, including times when that pattern was disturbed, we think by anthropogenic influences. I teach both undergraduates and postgraduates, and it is exciting to see how students pick up skills and knowledge and end up being fellow colleagues. This to me is the most exciting as it ensures a future for our profession.

Describe the most discouraging part of your research or teaching and how you overcame this limitation.

There are two aspects to this. There is the issue of having no direct access to state of the art equipment to produce world class results.  This aspect is overcome by collaboration with willing scientists from institutions where they possess the required type of equipment, or if funds are available, paying for analyses.  The second part that is discouraging is in translating science into policy. Informing policy makers the significance of our findings and implications for society in the next five to six deacades.  It takes time to convince politicians, whose time line is measured in terms of five or four years.  The action is required now not in the next five years, so that we can start reversing the effects of climate change.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

Publishing! I wish I had been taught to read journals earlier and not just at graduate school. This is so essential in academia that it can determine one’s success or failure in research.  My advice to students who would like to pursue careers in this area of earth sciences is that, now we are much more integrated, as such they need to be equipped with a range of skills, especially IT skills, writing skills and reading skills. There is a lot more to read in a little time available. However, they need to understand that the World needs them. The need for resources will continue to grow, the need for much more analytical, thinking type earth scientists is now; there is no substitute for travelling, to see more rocks and see how things are done differently in different places. So go ahead and travel and attend conventions and conferences as much as you can…you will always learn one or two things.