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April 2019
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Scientists take satellite technology skills to Africa

Scientists at the University of Bath have set up a specialist research lab in Madagascar to train local students in using the latest satellite technology to monitor and conserve the environment. Dr Peter Long and Professor Tamas Szekely, from the University’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry, have transformed a previously empty room at the University of Toliara into a Geographical Information Science (GIS) lab.

Supported by The Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Ralph Brown Expedition Award, they have created the specialist lab by providing laptops, internet access and GPS receivers.

The pair also collaborated with Dr Sama Zefania at the University of Toliara to run courses to train Madagascan biology graduates to analyse satellite images for projects ranging from environmental conservation to planning and forestry management.

Dr Long explained: -We’ve been working with colleagues at the University of Toliara for several years, studying the use of wetlands in Madagascar for farming and fishing, and looking at how these activities will be affected by future climate change, deforestation and human population growth.

-We noticed that the local biology graduates have quite an old-fashioned education at university. So they don’t have the transferable skills they need to be able to work in environmental impact jobs such as park management, geographical planning and the mining industry. This means that companies employ foreign workers to do these jobs instead.

-So we decided to set up a lab there and run workshops to teach these specialist skills to lecturers and students at the university.

Professor Szekely said: -It was an interesting challenge- the lab didn’t have any furniture, or even a door, let alone internet access. We had to transport all the books, laptops, printers and field equipment using rickshaws!

-We’re hoping to continue running workshops and help the students into the careers they want to do.

-It’s very satisfying to see the progress of the students. We’ve met some good friends with whom we hope to be able to collaborate academically in the future.

Kafosay Felestin is a postgraduate student in Geography at the University of Toliara.

As part of his course he must undertake an extended piece of field research and write a dissertation, but for many students in Madagascar fieldwork costs are prohibitively expensive.

The Leverhulme-funded project, a collaboration between Bath, Toliara and Cardiff University-based scientists Professor Mike Bruford and Dr Edward Brede, has funded Kafosay to spend two months doing fieldwork in the lower Mangoky region in order to understand how rural people use wetlands.

-I was really happy to be able to work with the Bath team, said Kafosay. -This project was an opportunity for me to learn how to perform the latest GIS analysis, get into the field with all the equipment I needed, and improve my English by working closely with the British team.

Dr Long said: -It was great to work with some really enthusiastic Malagasy students in Toliara. I’m confident that this small project has given valuable training to the students we worked with and it was great to be able to leave the legacy of a small library, laptops and field equipment so that Toliara students in future will be able to do high quality field research in their local environment.

Kafosay hopes to continue to do a PhD on conservation of wetlands in Madagascar. He feels that working with the two UK universities has helped him towards this goal.

-I now know how to plan scientific research and compete for grant funding from international agencies, he said.

Dr Long added: -Working with students in Universities is an important aspect of doing research in Madagascar. The Malagasy students’ perspectives are often very valuable and it is possible to make a real difference to higher education in Madagascar by taking the time to understand the students’ needs.

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