Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Working together to combat environmental pollutants and inform agricultural strategies...by Michael Watts

My team at the British Geological Survey has hosted four Commonwealth Professional Fellowships from Pakistan, India, Malawi and Zimbabwe since 2012.  The scheme funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Council UK (CSCUK) provides support for professionals in the Commonwealth to undertake training at a host institute in the UK.  Here a few of the Fellows give an account of their experience and opportunities arising from such a Fellowship in the UK.

‘It was like my dream came true,” says Dr Mousumi Chatterjee, ‘when I opened the email informing of my success in attaining a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship. I was happy as I was going to experience everything that I had wanted to learn for the previous three years of postgraduate and post-doctorate training at the University of Calcutta.’  Mousumi, a biogeochemist working on mercury pollution in the Indian Sundarban wetland ecosystem, wanted to highlight the mercury exposure of different fish within an estuarine food chain, in order to measure direct human exposure levels. ‘My desire was fulfilled when I started my Professional Fellowship with BGS. Not only is the BGS well equipped with sophisticated analytical facilities, but the organisation also provided me with expert guidance and a friendly environment, and encouraged me in the new practical implementation of scientific ideas.’

Mousumi Chatterjee - University of Calcutta / University of Reading 
During her Professional Fellowship in 2013, Mousumi used the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry laboratories to determine mercury contamination in a variety of edible fish, polychaete worms and bivalve molluscs.  ‘The results were fascinating, as the level of mercury contamination signified the feeding habits of different species of fish.’

Mousumi benefited from several scientific exchanges during her stay. ‘I visited the Marine Sciences Department at the University of Bangor, where I learnt how to extract the otolith (a small fish ear bone), which acts as a recorder of environmental chemistry, from hilsha fish. This resulted in a research collaboration with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore after my return to India. I also had the opportunity to attend and present my research findings at the International Conference of Mercury as a Global Pollutant 2013, held in Edinburgh, which brought together the world’s leading experts on mercury contamination of the environment.’

‘My Professional Fellowship was fruitful enough not only to implement independent research ideas in my home country of India, but also to build long-lasting research networks with the BGS. I am still in contact with Michael and now we are collaborating to work on global road dust pollution. I enjoyed every moment at the BGS, whether it was working in the laboratory or hanging out with colleagues in the canteen.’

Dr Munir Zia - Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC), Pakistan
Munir Zia - ‘I had an opportunity to get hands-on experience for trace element analyses of soils, waters and grains to better understand soil-to-transfer of key minerals. Another area of professional development was to learn about the handling of large amount of analytical data and its GIS integration. After completion of a Fulbright Scientist Award, FFC assigned me as the R&D Coordinator however, being a scientist I was lacking in necessary management experience relevant to R&D. The professional training at BGS in 2012 enabled me to introduce collection of georeferenced soil samples across Pakistan. The FFC farmer education programme collects and analyses 25,000 soil samples every year, therefore, introduction of geo-referencing will enable us to transform this effort into national scale soil fertility maps. Generation of such maps will enable FFC to pinpoint areas that are deficient in trace minerals and other essential elements. Our effort in developing national scale maps will help strengthen crops bio-fortification programmes being run by HarvestPlus Pakistan, to which we are a local partner. We are also in a process to establish a Fertilizer Research Centre in Pakistan, the first of its kind in this country. The opportunity provided by CSCUK was invaluable in developing a network of partners and skills training. Since my first visit to BGS in 2012, I have returned several times through alternative funding opportunities to continue a joint programme of research and more recently with academics at the University of Nottingham through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry’

Grace Manzeke from the University of Zimbabwe and Salome Mkandwire from the Malawian Department of Surveys also undertook a CSCUK Fellowship in 2015 (see previous blog).  For Grace, support from the CSCUK Fellowship provided a solid start prior to her commencing a project funded by the Royal Society-DFID on geospatial characterisation of micronutrient deficiency in Zimbabwean soils, starting summer 2015 (see previous blogs by Michael Watts and Grace Manzeke).

For all of the Commonwealth Fellows, it was important to expose them to the variety of opportunities in the UK, from work through to visiting the variety of tourist and scenic locations. They were initially helped in doing so, but soon unleashed the enthusiasm for exploring the UK and grew to enjoy the environment and culture. From a host perspective, there are the obvious opportunities to develop collaborative networks and partners, but also an opportunity for other members of a team or junior scientists to broaden their horizons through training or working alongside Fellows from overseas.

By Dr Michael Watts, Head of Inorganic Geochemistry, Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, British Geological Survey.

Papers from the Fellows:

Chatterjee M, Sklenars L, Chenery SR, Watts MJ, Rakshit D and Sarkar SK. (2014). Assessment of Total Mercury (HgT) in sediments and biota of Indian Sundarban Wetland and adjacent coastal regions, Environment and Natural Research, 4(2): 50-64

Zia M, Watts MJ, Gardner A, Chenery SR. (2015). Iodine status of soils, grain crops and irrigation waters in Pakistan, Environmental Earth Sciences, 73, 7995-8008.

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