Thursday, 29 March 2018

Commonwealth Professional Fellowship: placement at the BGS...by Bwalya Kalunga and Munir Zia

Munir, Kalunga, Belinda (PhD student) at BGS
Our names are Bwalya Kalunga, a Research Technician in the Ministry of Agriculture under the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) Department, and based at Mount Makulu Central Research Station; and Munir Zia from Pakistan who is the Research and Development Coordinator at Fauji Fertilizer Company Limited. We undertook a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship (CSCUK 2018). The fellowship was attainable at the BGS hosted by the Inorganic Geochemistry (IG) team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. The visit has acquainted us on very important aspects of lab work, i.e. health and safety, sample handling, sample preparation, sample dissolutions, modern methods of analysis, quality assurance, data management, staff coordination and relation which most organisations lack in developing countries. The fellowship will be very pivotal in lifting our home country’s laboratories to be on the next level and also in demonstrating confidence in data output and its publication.

During the fellowship we were exposed to the use of various laboratory equipment such as, TIM865 Titration Manager (pH/Alkaline), NPOC, IC, and ICP-MS. Due to the sensitivity of the equipment, we acquired knowledge on the need for good laboratory practices that require a clean environment. Additionally how the samples should be handled when running the equipment by use of a quality control regime to monitor the performance of equipment in the short and long-term within acceptable working limits. After a few briefings on lab protocols, Dr Zia focused more towards learning of QGIS skills for the development of soil fertility maps using 70,000 data points from soil samples collected at country scale with help from Dr Marieta Garcia-Bajo and Dr Louise Ander.  This effort goes back to 2012 when Dr Zia first visited and received advice on how to locate sample data from an annual soil sampling campaign of 25,000 collection points.  Dr Barry Rawlins was involved in providing advice at this point and continued help from IG to guide Dr Zia in collecting field data in the appropriate format to produce a digital output for soil chemistry on this visit which will be highly valuable for use by policymakers e.g. soil fertility, pH maps.

Kalunga on the ICP-MS in the Inorganic Geochemistry Laboratory
The overview of principles of QA, which includes documentation, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP's), Quality Control samples and monitoring processes will help us develop our own systems in Africa and understand the challenges to implement them and possibly even aim for appropriate accreditation. This is also applicable to Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC) to which Dr Munir Zia represents since FFC is also going to set up a huge ammonia complex in Tanzania ($2B). For this purpose Dr Zia also had a placement at Rothamsted Research to learn more in depth about the Africa Soil Information System (AfSIS). Our collaboration with the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry laboratories will act as a bench mark to this monumental task. This can be achieved in a stepwise and staggered manner. Accreditation is possible for African laboratories.


Visits to Universities of Reading and Nottingham

While Dr Zia visited the Giants’ Causeway, Bwalya had an opportunity of attending an Annual Meeting of the Soil Research Centre at University of Reading. Basically it was a good experience to meet up with scientists from different disciplines on how best soil health could be sustained through the introduction of cost effective ways of managing soil nutrients and also coming up with a policy to remedy the farming practices that are contributing to nutrient depletion. Bwalya also had a tour of laboratories at Nottingham University with a view of trying to see different working culture.


Dundee Conference

Visiting Dundee, Scotland
We also attended a 2-day conference at Dundee in Scotland which was on 27-28 February, 2018. There we had a wonderful experience during and after the conference. This conference focused on the protection of the environment thus boosting agriculture growth. People from different places across Scotland, Ireland, and England, with vast experience and of course from various disciplines. The returning part was so great because we experienced the trains being cancelled due to the ”beast from the east”..

With the MP-AES equipment which was purchased by the Royal Society-DFID project for Bwalya’s lab at ZARI, it will actually enable was to work effectively in credible data generation through the skills and knowledge acquired during the fellowship.  Agilent’s 4210 MP-AES is the ideal instrument for our institutions looking at transition from Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (FAAS) to another technique. By using nitrogen as the source gas for the plasma, running costs are greatly reduced, and by removing the requirement for hazardous nitrous oxide and acetylene safety is greatly increased. Additionally the higher temperature nitrogen plasma atomization/ionization source improves detection limits, linear range, and long term stability, and allows the sample preparation process to be greatly simplified.

Geostatistical approaches learnt by Dr Zia at BGS, and UoN demonstrate the value of private sector farmer’s field data as a whole. Prediction modelling suggested a wider scale deficiency of zinc, phosphorus, and somewhat potassium across Pakistan. Dr Zia training also demonstrates the potential power of well-curated, georeferenced agronomy data from the private sector (or where public, or public-private, systems exist). These resources can have collective benefits reaching far beyond those to the individual farmer for whom field-specific advice is provided. The value of collecting location details and maintaining a consistent database of results and sampling information should be developed more widely, to allow such spatial assessments to be implemented more frequently. The outputs of these geostatistical modelling approaches made predictions on un-sampled grid locations, so have a further benefit that they do not reveal original (private) sample location or data information. Therefore, regional or national predictive modelling can deliver strategic information to support food security in terms of both yield and micronutrient concentrations, including in small-scale agriculture situations. The prediction maps from this work will be presented at the SEGH conference this July in Livingstone Zambia (https://segh2018.org/ ), prior to publication.

The onus is on us to make sure that the skills acquired, should be able to help us in effectively implement and execute laboratory and geospatial techniques for running of laboratory instruments and handling of large datasets.

Our next step is to have a joined training programme in Lusaka (lab scientists from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya) resulting from a network of 8 institutes supported by the Royal Society-DFID project, and also trying to see the progress of the laboratories after acquiring knowledge from the British Geological Survey. Additionally, discuss the long term goals on how they can be met to engender trust and confidence in data produced from African labs. Analytical exercises using our own in-house produced reference materials (learnt at BGS as part of Innovation funding) will provide a measure of performance for analytical data will also be part of the training in developing quality assurance/management programmes. After that the lab scientists will procced to Livingstone for a 34th International Conference under Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH), where we as Laboratory Scientists will have an opportunity of seeing how data generated from labs are used in scientific presentations. We will also have the opportunity to present a joint poster presentation to discuss the challenges that African labs face and potential solutions to overcome these challenges to produce confidence and trust in their data output.

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