Taita Research Station in Africa, a goldmine of multidisciplinary research

The Taita Research Station of the University of Helsinki, located in Kenya, is Africa in miniature, which is why it also doubles as a goldmine of multidisciplinary research. Petri Pellikka, professor of geoinformatics, supported this research by requesting that instead of presents for his 50th birthday, contributions be made to the Taita Research Station Fund.

The first time Petri Pellikka, professor of geoinformatics, visited the Taita Hills in Kenya was in 1989 when he was a master’s student in geography. In 2002 he returned to the University of Helsinki, assuming the professorship in geoinformatics, and just a year later was awarded funding by the Academy of Finland for his first Taita project.

Ever since, one project has been followed by another. Today, Pellikka is managing his fifth project funded by the Academy, in addition to which four projects supported by Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs have also been carried out at Taita.

Scholars from fields other than geography have also worked at the station, starting from Timo Vesala, Academy professor in atmospheric sciences. And yet, the Taita Station is indelibly associated with Pellikka who, together with Professor of Botany Jouko Rikkinen, came up in 2009 with the original idea of proposing the acquisition of the site – previously a mission – to the University.

“Making the decision was easy for the University at the time, as the going price was only €32,000, in addition to which we already had strong evidence of its active use through a number of doctoral dissertations and master’s theses,” Pellikka explains.

“Times have changed. If an apartment block were to be purchased next door, the facilities could be expanded from a small location for roughly 20 researchers to something capable of accommodating as much as a hundred individuals. We would also be permitted to establish a botanic garden on the premises in cooperation with the Finnish Museum of Natural History, but steep cuts at the University have delayed our expansion plans.”

Multidisciplinary research

Even with its relatively meagre resources, research activity at Taita is busy. The station provides a productive setting for multidisciplinary research.

“Our research area, the Taita-Taveta County, a region of approximately 170 square kilometres, contains savannah grasslands and bushland, rain forests, indigenous plant and animal species, agricultural land, mountains, pastureland and nature conservation areas, while also being a home to 300,000 people.

“At Taita, you can easily measure and compare differences in carbon dioxide emissions from the soil, the movement of atmospheric gases between the various layers of land cover or how paving dirt tracks impacts livelihoods, to give you an example.”

For over 15 years, valuable geographical research data, including elevation models and land cover maps, has been collected at Taita into a location data repository.

“What may be our most irreplaceable asset is the network of contacts established over the years,” Pellikka assesses.

“We are on good terms with the Taita authorities, various organisations, Kenyan universities and international research organisations and ministries of the field active in Nairobi. No money can buy a network like this. Something like that can only be built with patience, resulting in capital which also benefits other researchers.”

A fund supporting master’s students

In 2012 the Alumni Association of the University of Helsinki visited the station. The visitors took to the place to such a degree that they established the Taita Research Station Fund to support research conducted there, with each traveller donating a few hundred euros for a nest egg.

“The funds have been awarded as scholarships to cover travel costs associated with completing one or two master’s theses per year.

In certain special cases, students writing their doctoral dissertation have been granted a slightly larger sum than normally.

“Writing your master’s thesis in the field in Africa is fascinating, but a bit more expensive than at home. It’s great that the fund makes it possible for several students.”

Pellikka considers every single donation by friends of the Taita Station more than welcome.

“Every little bit helps! I personally asked people to contribute to the fund instead of getting me presents for my 50th birthday, something which I will also be doing for my next milestone birthday.”

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