The roots of AfricaArray stretch across continents.
In 2003, Paul Dirks, head of the School of Geosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, was asked by university officials to restructure the geophysics programme. Dirks realized that the number of African universities offering geophysics programmes was declining—even though demand for trained African researchers and scientists was growing, and so he was determined to rebuild a strong programme at Wits. In October 2003, Paul traveled to the Pennsylvania State University, to meet Andy Nyblade, a professor of geosciences who grew up in Tanzania and who has been conducting geophysical research in Africa since the early 1980s.
At the kickoff symposium of Penn State’s Alliance for Earth, Engineering and Development in Africa (AESEDA), the two discussed the need for a scientific workforce of trained African geoscientists to work in industry, government and academia. Their discussions led to a white paper outlining AfricaArray and to workshops held in Africa and the U.S. to discuss the concept.
Interest grew throughout the first half of 2004, and by July of that year, Wits, Penn State and the Council for Geoscience (CGS) in Pretoria, South Africa, had pledged $1.7M in in-kind support, enough to launch AfricaArray. In January 2005, 10 BSc geophysics honors students from several African countries began study at Wits in the new AfricaArray programme.
That success was quickly followed by the installation or upgrading of seismic stations in six countries to form the backbone of a scientific network providing shared data and research opportunities for training students and technical personnel.
“What started out as an idea for building a geophysics education programme in Africa evolved into a programme to build a community of scientists who share data, collaborate on research and provide training opportunities,” Nyblade says of those early days.
The expansion of the geophysics field course at Wits in 2006 to students from outside of Wits and to participants from industry further advanced AfricaArray. In the past three years, 42 students from 12 African countries and the U.S. have participated in the field course.
AfricaArray also has recorded significant funding growth. Initial National Science Foundation (NSF) awards of $400,000 in 2004 were followed a year later by a $2.4-million NSF grant through its Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) programme. That same year, Wits received National Research Foundation (NRF) awards of 12.5-million South African rand (about $1.6 million U.S.).
Since 2005, significant additional funding has been raised, including an award in 2008 from NSF, Penn State and the Jackson School at the University of Texas to further upgrade and expand the AfricaArray observatory network.