Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, August 25, 2011

U-M hosts a new group of visiting African scholars in UMAPS program

Biochemist David Kenkpen wanted to know why some people got dizzy or fainted when they ate cassava, a starchy root vegetable popular in his homeland of Liberia.

Analyzing cassava in a laboratory wasn’t possible for Kenkpen because Liberia is still recovering from more than a decade of civil war and lacks the proper facilities.

More information

Click here to watch a video of scholars sharing their experiences.

Click here for more information on the African Studies Center, a unit of the International Institute in LSA.

But Kenkpen finally got a chance to pursue his research in a program that brings African scholars to U-M for fellowships that last up to six months. During his stay, he discovered that the cassava consumed in Liberia has a high amount of naturally occurring toxins that pose a health threat for some.

"The toxicity can lead to so many diseases, such as nerve damage," says Kenkpen, who returned to Liberia last spring. "It can also affect pregnant women."

As Kenkpen prepares to publish the results of his research, a new group of African scholars began arriving at U-M Thursday to participate in the African Presidential Scholars Program, or UMAPS.

The program has two main goals:

• Help the next generation of African scholars link up with international academic networks.

• Build on the global experience at U-M by bringing talented African faculty to the campus to collaborate with research, scholarship and teaching.

Since the program began in 2009, 38 academics have participated. The most recent group of 14 scholars includes faculty with research interests that range from early childhood education and renewable energy to medicinal plants and small aircraft design.

For many of the scholars, the most amazing thing about U-M is the libraries. They were astounded by the vast resources and with how easy it is to search for materials online.

"There were resources about Liberia, which I couldn’t find in Liberia, but they were sitting in the Michigan Library," says Telteltee Sayndee, a Liberian scholar who did research last year that will help him create guidelines for nations transitioning from war to peace.

Other scholars raved about professors who served as their mentors. When Annet Oguttu arrived in 2009 shortly after earning her doctorate in international tax law, she was thrilled to learn that she would be paired with Reuven Avi-Yonah, a U-M professor with a global reputation in international tax law. Oguttu says she quoted Avi-Yonah in her graduate studies.

Since returning to South Africa, Oguttu has continued to work with Avi-Yonah, who before meeting the young scholar had no involvement with Africa. She organized an international conference this summer in Johannesburg about commercial law and Avi-Yonah was a keynote speaker.

"There is still collaboration between me and my mentor," she says.

Many of the scholars who grew up in balmier climates even have fond memories of the Michigan winters.

"When I saw the leaves falling and the color of the leaves, it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced," says Ruth Mampane, an educational psychologist from South Africa who researched the resiliency of school children last year.

Mampane saw snow for the first time of her life at U-M. "When people were complaining about the snow," she says, "I was happy."