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Science in Namibia

CREDIT: Courtesy of C.I. Du Preez

At Science Careers, our focus is mostly on doing science in the United States and Europe. But we remain fascinated by what happens elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. First, what happens in other parts of the world affects what happens here, and to an increasing extent in an era of globalization. Next, although science may come closer to universality than any other human activity, there are distinct local variations, as scientists adapt to local constraints and approach science with ways of thinking that are influenced by local culture, and these different ways of doing science can teach us things. Finally, sometimes science over there offers opportunities for scientists over here.

So we decided -- in connection with Science's special issue on global populations -- to launch a new series of articles focused on science in faraway places. We chose these places at random -- literally, using a random-coordinate generator that works with Google Maps. (Several such applications can be found on the Internet.) We generated a random location and then did some homework to figure out whether there's any interesting science being done near there. Often, we've found, there is. Our first roll of the dice landed us not far off the coast of the southern African nation of Namibia.

Since gaining independence from South Africa in 1990, Namibia has maintained political and economical stability, and in 1992 the government's National Assembly established the University of Namibia, where much of the country's scientific research and training occurs. Namibia is developing programs in physics, engineering, biology, computer science, mathematics, and geography. In the past 2 years, the university has established a medical school and a school of pharmacy.

But Namibia remains a developing country. Money is tight. Most of the laboratories on campus are dedicated to teaching, not research. When Davis Mumbengegwi moved to Namibia (from Zimbabwe) to establish a microbiology lab where he would search for antimalaria drugs, he started with little space or equipment. He, along with others, is finding ways to establish active research labs by pulling in expertise and reaching out to collaborate with scientists outside the country.

But Namibian scientists are also drawing upon many of their country's natural resources to make gains in science and finding ways to treat disease, including both long-standing local ailments and diseases associated with increasingly Western lifestyles. Some researchers, such as Percy Chimwamurombe, work with scientists and community members finding ways to use natural resources to fight poverty, malnutrition, and the impacts of social and climate changes. Others, including Selma Lendelvo, work with communities to resolve issues where people and animals may find themselves in conflict over the same resources.

Namibia is also the site of one of the largest and most sensitive gamma ray telescopes in the world. Riaan Steenkamp, a member of the physics faculty at the University of Namibia, helped establish the site in the Khomas Highland of Namibia, an area known for its clear atmosphere and optical quality.

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