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Cyril sits on a stool while conducting a resistivity survey

Cyril Boateng takes a resistivity survey to study slope stability in Kumasi, Ghana.Credit: Cyril D. Boateng

Major oil and gas reserves were discovered in Ghana in 2007. In the wake of this find in his home country, Cyril Boateng pursued a master’s degree in geophysics at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi. He then undertook a four-year PhD as part of an international programme at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geology and Geophysics in Beijing. There, he worked with geophysicist Fu Liyun on using machine learning to characterize underground oil or gas reservoirs — training that enables him to investigate historical sites associated with the transatlantic trade in enslaved people, alongside hydrocarbon exploration back in Ghana. Now a lecturer at KNUST, he encourages others to return to Africa after studying abroad.

Was it difficult to fit into a culture so different from Ghana’s?

China was excellent for my career, and I loved the culture. I learnt Mandarin in a four-month intensive course, and I got to experience an entirely different culture and diet. Learning conversational Mandarin really helped — it would have been impossible to integrate without it.

My wife and son joined me after a year, and we spent our holidays visiting other lab members’ home towns, often in the Chinese countryside, and meeting their families. I didn’t go back to visit Ghana until my PhD ended in 2018.

Were you always planning to return to Ghana?

I’ve always felt that you should come back and contribute to your country. I planned ahead and kept in contact with people back home at the universities that I was interested in. Many universities in Ghana do not recruit new faculty members every year, so I needed to know when windows opened.

By 2020, I had done two years as a postdoc in Liyun’s group, at the China University of Petroleum in Qingdao. Then KNUST contacted me about a position; I was interviewed, and they offered me the job. My Chinese colleagues did not understand why I would give up the security of my position there for a lower salary in Ghana in the middle of a pandemic.

Why did you make that trade-off?

Africa is a continent rich in natural resources. I strongly believe that it needs to build capacity in geophysics research and services, and that I can use the skills and knowledge that I have gained to be a major part of that change. I also don’t want anyone else to have to go through the same stress I did — finding an outside lab, getting funding, doing visa interviews and travelling. We will never build research capacity in Ghana if everyone coming behind me has to go through that to get a research group up and running.

What are you investigating at KNUST?

My team and I use seismic equipment, so some students are working on attenuation models to predict which areas are at risk of earthquakes. Until now, Ghana has used models built by North American scientists using North American data to understand ground motion during earthquakes, but we are working on Ghana-specific equations.

Other students are developing algorithms for hydrocarbon exploration, and specifically for seismic inversion — the process of sending energy into the ground using dynamite and then mapping how that energy is reflected off subsurface layers, similarly to echolocation, to locate a reservoir.

In April, I won a grant from the Society of Exploration Geophysicists Foundation in Houston, Texas, to conduct heritage investigations of sites involved in the trade of enslaved people, such as former forts. We will be using the same geophysics techniques used in oil and gas exploration, such as ground-penetrating radar. Ghana was a major hub for the Atlantic slave trade 300–400 years ago, with ships leaving our shores carrying people from other parts of Africa.

There has been renewed interest in connecting Africans in the diaspora, including Black Americans, to their ancestral lands. A significant focus has been placed on research that enhances understanding of the circumstances of enslaved people. Tracing the different slavery routes and the living conditions of enslaved people is important for enriching historical contexts and providing a proper understanding. There are lots of artefacts to identify — human remains, shackles, rifles, pottery, beads and other evidence of cultural practices — and places of interest to map out, but most are buried. If I had stayed in China, I wouldn’t be able to do cool research like that.

What advice do you have for other African researchers returning from studying abroad?

Make a decision early about returning and stick to it. Yes, Africa is challenging. But if you keep connected and have a good network back home, then you can plan. Know exactly what you are getting into and give yourself time to set up your group. Don’t come back and compare yourself with those in other countries who will be achieving things in one or two years that might take you longer. Think about it as setting up from scratch. It takes time to build capacity, reputation and local knowledge, which means it will be a lengthy process, but with more potential return in the long run. Draw up a five-year plan for your career trajectory back home. And seek out a supportive environment with helpful colleagues; I found that in members of the KNUST physics department.

What’s another challenge that researchers in Africa face?

We don’t have a lot of science communicators in Africa and that means the general public questions the usefulness of research. There’s a big need to highlight the stories of African scientists. Otherwise, the public doesn’t see that a lot of the research on plants, health and the pandemic is done by Ghanaians. For example, a protocol that pools tests for the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was first used here.

I started a science-news site called AfroScience Network with some African colleagues. We want to include more local-language content. For example, I would like to do more in the pidgin English that is spoken across West Africa. There’s this misconception that science is not indigenous to Africa. We point to examples of scientific research and innovation here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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