SEGH Articles

Working together to combat environmental pollution and inform agricultural strategies

10 July 2015
Environmental scientists give an account of their experience from a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship in the UK.

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.

Dr Mousumi Chatterjee – University of Calcutta / University of Reading

‘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.’

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 Fertiliser Company (FFC), Pakistan

‘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' says Munir Zia. '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 – University of Zimbabwe

‘Smallholder rain-fed agriculture supports livelihoods for more than 60% of the Zimbabwean population' says Grace Manzeke. 'Like any system, it faces various challenges which include poor soils, low crop yields and climate change and variability among others. Working in these communities for over 10 years now, the Soil Fertility Consortium for Southern Africa (SOFECSA) at the University of Zimbabwe has been promoting impact-oriented research for development through a multi-institutional disciplinary approach. This has opened an avenue of research which could be explored in these farming communities, some of which require external regional and international support such as relevant skills and knowledge to address the inherent and emerging challenges.’

‘As a Research Fellow for SOFECSA, I undertook a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship award in Spring of 2015 with the Inorganic Geochemistry team at BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN), through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG). I gained relevant skills and knowledge on modern sampling design and implementation, database management, GIS, geostatistics and laboratory quality assurance techniques. The BGS is a centre for technology excellence with laboratories equipped with modern instruments and dedicated technologically sound staff, statisticians and geochemists relevant to support emerging research on alleviating extreme poverty and malnutrition in Zimbabwe smallholder communities and the region. This support is fundamental for my new Royal Society-DFID (http://britgeopeople.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/geochemistry-in-sub-saharan-africa-by.html) – PhD project on geospatial characterisation of micronutrient deficiency in Zimbabwean soils. Results generated during the CSCUK training showed that our soils are very acidic with low total Zn concentrations of 29.1 mg kg-1 implying the need for agricultural interventions to enhance crop productivity.  I would recommend the future for soil science research in Zimbabwe to be inclined towards use of stable isotopes e.g. 70Zn for detecting available soil nutrients to promote soil-to-plant transfer to combat regional “hidden hunger” estimated at 40%. This is a novel approach which is currently implemented at the UoN and would recommend for sustainable agricultural interventions in Zimbabwe and Sub-Saharan Africa. The CSCUK project enabled me to develop sustainable collaborative links with BGS and UoN, and with another CSCUK Fellow, Salome Mkandwire, a database expert hosted by the Inorganic Geochemistry team (http://britgeopeople.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/managing-malawis-spatial-data-by-carl.html) from the Malawi Department of Surveys.’

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.