Nicknamed “Professseur” by my peers, I was inspired to pursue a PhD

Jean Baptiste HABINSHUTI from Rwanda is a PASET-RSIF Scholar in Material Science and Engineering at African University of Science and Technology (AUST) in Nigeria. Being a recipient of RSIF PhD scholarship opportunity meant a lot to him. First, it was an avenue to upgrade his academic qualification, but it also gave him a chance to realize his high school dream to earn the title of professor after having been nicknamed “Professseur” by students from his community for organizing science tutoring sessions during high school holidays. Little did they know that it was a catalyst for him to build himself and achieve his personal goals and development.

Picture of Baptiste taken in the lab during sample preparation for analysis

He was awarded PASET-RSIF scholarship to pursue a PhD degree in Material Science and Engineering in the thematic area of Mining, Mineral and Materials Engineering at AUST (Nigeria).  At AUST, the PhD program comprises two components: course work and research. To-date, Jean has completed his course work and is now on a sandwich program at Worcester Polytechnique Institute (USA) for part of his research. His research has four projects, of which he has completed two of them, while one is ongoing. He has one manuscript for publication under-review and he is working on the second one.

Why study material Science and engineering?

Jean believes that his study will add significant value to African mineral resources. The research focuses on processing and extraction of tantalite ores using simple, affordable, and environmentally friendly techniques. He is exploring how these techniques can be applied in mining and processing of African tantalite ores and add value to the mineral resources from Africa instead of exporting them in their raw form. By working closely with academic institutions, relevant investors and governments, and other stakeholders within sub-Saharan Africa; this specialized knowledge will be integrated in the region and transferred to the future generation.

When the Covid-19 pandemic spread to Africa, Jean, like many other scholars away from home had worries about his family and they were also worried about him. Getting updates about the Covid-19 status in his country was part of his daily activities. Regular calls to his family and relatives to raise their awareness and help them understand the importance of implementing and following the government preventive policies, was a need. USA was one of the most affected countries in both confirmed cases and mortality, something that caused more worries to Jean, his colleagues and his family. Consequently, staying indoors was the only way to avoid being exposed to the virus. Psychological instability resulting from repetitive activities and being away from the family members begun to affect him and other colleagues.

COVID-19 and the future

All his social life was affected by COVID 19 and as far as his research work was concerned, he had done some of the preliminary experiments before the pandemic paralyzed the activities in the University. When the University was closed in March 2020, access to facilities such as the Laboratories and Libraries became impossible and some activities shifted to remote access. The regular meetings with supervisors for discussion and presentation of research progress also slowed down significantly.

Covid-19 affected Jean’s research work plan because there was no laboratory work during the pandemic. The University has since resumed laboratory access with some restrictions. He admits that he has quite a lot of work to do, as recommended by his advisors, and he is currently trying to maximize on literature review, such that when things normalise, most of his time will be focused on laboratory work. However, there is a clear delay in his work plan, but he is committed to squeeze himself and work hard as he can see the possibilities of meeting the planned timeline to achieve his goals and objectives on time. The only big challenge is about his sample stuck in France due to radioactive material detected in. He, with the help of his host University tried to work on the shipment of other samples from Africa, but the samples were missed completely. FedEX has requested that he file claim to the shipping agency.

Jean is very grateful to RSIF and all collaborators of the program for giving him such an opportunity to shape his future, that of his family and his Country. He urges the management of RSIF to be aware of the impact and delays caused by the pandemic and work collaboratively. The University must do their best to allow access to facilities and tools that enable students to achieve their academic targets on time. RSIF should communicate with student advisors and encourage them to respond as fast as possible when students write to them seeking guidance and or recommendations.

Contact Jean Baptiste Habinshuti via jhabinshuti@wpi.edu

I will contribute to the fight against infectious diseases in Africa

Jean Nepomuscene Hakizimana is a Rwandan pursuing his Ph.D. studies in Food security and Agribusiness at the Southern African Centre for Infectious Diseases Surveillance (SACIDS Foundation for One Health) hosted at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Morogoro, Tanzania under a scholarship awarded to him by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, icipe, through the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF).  The Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), one of PASET’s flagship programs is the first Pan-African science fund that provides doctoral scholarships for African scientists aimed at catalyzing the training of 10,000 PhDs in Applied Sciences Engineering and Technology (ASET) fields.

Hakizimana in the Laboratory

To Hakizimana, getting the PASET-RSIF scholarship for his Ph.D. meant so much for his career and personal development. The Ph.D. whose scholarship confirmation letter he received on 21st March 2018 and accepted, is to-date, he believes, the best career decision he ever made. The excitement was palpable and the enthusiasm about the offered opportunity was commitment towards achieving his career goals and professional growth.

Hakizimana’s research in his Ph.D. project was built on his previous research experience with Transboundary Animal Diseases (TADs) but this time with special focus on genomics and molecular epidemiology of viral diseases of food security and livelihood importance. TADs hinder poverty and hunger alleviation, an important component of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (SDGs) and the African Union Agenda 2063. Jean’s Ph.D. project exploits the advances in genomics and molecular epidemiology technologies and innovations to mitigate the effect of these diseases for an improved livelihood and well-being of livestock farmers.

Under the supervision and mentorship of senior scientists at Sokoine University of Agriculture one of the RSIF African Host University (AHU), Ghent University an RSIF International Partner Institution (IPI) and the Rwanda National Industrial Research and Development Agency, he has no doubt that the outcome of this study will positively impact on Livestock farmers and contribute to food security and livelihoods.

To-date, Hakizimana  has published in high impact factor peer-reviewed journals, for instance Viruses (impact factor of 3.816; Hakizimana et al 2021; see link), Frontiers in Veterinary Science (impact factor of 2.245; Hakizimana et al 2020; see link) and BMC Veterinary Research (5-year impact factor of 2.179; Hakizimana et al 2020;see link) as outputs emanating from his Ph.D. research.

In addition, the experience and expertise gained earned him a research grant (grant NO. I-1-B-6269-1) from the International foundation for Science (IFS) to advance his research on African swine fever in countries neighboring Tanzania and his abstract has been selected for a travel grant by the United States of America Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) to share his research findings with the international scientific community during the Global African Swine Fever Research Alliance (GARA) scientific meeting.

With the high-quality skills and specialized knowledge gained during his Ph.D., Jean hopes to contribute to the training of the next generation of students, researchers and innovators in his area of expertise. He intends to contribute and get involved as a researcher and teacher in the fight against infectious diseases so that he can contribute to the alleviation of the burden of these diseases in Africa where their impacts are greatest.

Despite the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, Jean kept moving forward but at a slower speed compared to the momentum he had garnered prior to the pandemic. Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted his research activities involving collaboration with other institutions where physical presence was required. By working from home and going to the laboratory only when necessary as well as adhering to the travel restrictions, he managed to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19. All the Conferences he was supposed to attend were moved to online, thus during the lockdown, the online alternative was used for specific trainings and conferences in his research area. Positively, the University administration was very supportive with the adoption of the Regulations and Guidelines for Higher Degrees to support online training and management of postgraduate studies in April 2020.

According to Hakizimana, Africa needs home-grown expertise that can tackle new risks such as climate change and global pandemics. RSIF, as an Africa-led initiative with the objective of strengthening the science, technology, and engineering capability in sub-Saharan Africa for its socioeconomic transformation, is useful to advance knowledge, promote research and help the African society discover innovative solutions to overcome its most pressing problems. Clearly, the RSIF program is increasing the quality of scientific research in the region, and Jean is happy to be associated with this initiative and what it stands for.

Conact Mr. Jean Nepomuscene Hakizimana hakizimana.jean@sacids.org