November 13, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Predicting micronutrients in the soil: an interview with Christopher Chagumaira

Christopher Chagumaira is a UoN-RRes PhD studentship recipient. His project is titled: Geospatial modelling of soil geochemistry at national scale for improved human nutrition and he is supervised by Prof Murray Lark (UoN), Prof Martin Broadley (UoN), Dr Alice Milne (RRes), Prof Patson Nalivata (LUANAR)and Dr Joseph Chimungu (LUANAR).

Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?

I became interested in the applications of geospatial analysis in environmental planning and monitoring in 2007 when I was doing my undergraduate project at the University of Zimbabwe. My interest was raised further during an internship at the Environmental Management Agency in Zimbabwe. In order to develop my skills I joined the Soil Fertility Consortium for Southern Africa (SOFECSA) as a research fellow. I worked with smallholder farmers in rural communities of eastern Zimbabwe, conducting research in the areas of climate change adaptation, natural resource management and soil fertility. When I completed my Master of Philosophy, from the University of Zimbabwe, I got a chance to be engaged in several government and university projects that used geospatial analysis in mapping soil fertility status in rural communities in Zimbabwe. I became keen on developing my understanding of the statistical methods needed in this area and how they can improve communication of uncertainty, and consequently improve decision-making.

Why did you choose this particular scheme (Rothamsted-UoN)?

This scheme attracted me because of the long-standing track-record of collaborative research in sub-Saharan Africa where the aspect of using geo-information sciences and geochemistry to improve food and nutrition security is still in its infancy. I felt this is the right pathway for me to gain the knowledge and expertise to be able to contribute scientifically in order to improve the welfare of my fellow Africans.

How has your first year gone? Any highlights or successes?

When I started my PhD in autumn 2018, I was sceptical that I would be able to fully understand random function models, geostatistics and machine learning because I was intimidated by the ‘complex’ equations.  But with a lot dedication and patience I started grasping the concepts bit by bit, and now I am confident of myself and looking forward to more intensive work as my PhD studies progress. I have developed an understanding in statistical modelling and computational skills.

Has undertaking a PhD been different from other degrees you have done? How so? 

When I did my undergraduate and master’s degrees it was very flexible and I could spend a few days without studying and having to worry a lot, because I knew I would be able to absorb and deal with the pressure. But the approach to a PhD is different in that it requires huge amounts of commitment and discipline. When you interact with established scientists you get challenged and motivated to push yourself to the limit.

What have you learnt through your first PhD year?  

I have gained some life skills such a bravery and resilience. I have never been away from my family for more than a month and that has been one of greatest challenges I have had to cope with this year, although I was excited about the new opportunity ahead of me. But I was uncertain about many things, how would I fit into the new society and culture? Would I be able to cope with erratic UK weather? Would I be home sick? I have blended well with the rest of my colleagues and developed confidence to speak about my research in public. Building on the confidence, my presentation skills also improved over the past few months and I presented to several platforms, such as the Gates Foundation-funded GeoNutrition project meetings in Ethiopia, the Future Food briefing event and the UoN Postgraduate Symposium. I received positive feedback and received a gold award for my 1st year presentation in my Division, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, at the 2019 UoN Postgraduate Symposium. 

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

My research focuses on understanding and communicating uncertainty in spatial prediction of soil micronutrients, and other variables that affect their uptake in plants, to improve spatial resolution of baseline data. Improving the baseline data would greatly improve the ability of stakeholders such as agricultural and health practitioners to assess the risk of micronutrient deficiencies in their respective areas.

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

Funny enough my research is aimed at identifying the best way to communicate uncertainty to a range of data users, with little or no statistical background. I will save that answer towards the end of my studies.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD? 

Doing a PhD has its pressures and when I feel ‘drained’ I usually take a break. During the break I engage in several activities, mostly the UK weather decides what’s feasible, such as nature walks, indoor & outdoor exercises, and travelling.

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