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Delve into History through Genetics

Today, Q&A invites Dr. Eyoab Iyasu Gebremeskel, an assistant professor of Biology and the director of Students’ Affairs at the College of Science in Mainefhi. He has a PhD in Population Genetics and has been engaged in research undertakings looking for evidence to prove that Eritrea could be one of the places where humans originated from. •    Thank you for joining us. Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Thank you for having me. I got my first diploma in Pharmacy in Ethiopia. But I had to sit for the entrance exam all over again after the independence to join the University of Asmara. That was because there was no school of Pharmacy at the university at the time; it opened up later in 1998. Anyway, after joining the University of Asmara, I was able to get my BSc in Applied Biology in 1996. Later, in 2002, I did my MSc in Molecular Biology in Bacterial Genetics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I then got my PhD in Molecular Biology in Human Population Genetics in 2014 at the University of Khartoum.

•    Not many people are probably familiar with what Population Genetics is. Would you clarify that?
Yes. I would like to get into that. Even I wasn’t familiar with the field even though I studied Biology. I never knew that history could be studied through Biology. History incorporates many topics such as how humans originated, what activities they did and so on. Scientists use a number of methods to discover those topics through archeology, anthropology, sociology and languages which lead to answers about where populations originated and how related they are. Today, we are at a level where we can study this through DNA. Population Genetics is the study of a group of people. It could be done at an ethnic group level or at a country level as a whole. What makes this field stimulating is that not only history but medicine is also influenced by population genetics. People’s immunity varies from one person to another. Population Genetics studies this type of problems and searches for solutions. Nowadays, some of the developed countries have taken this matter to the next level and are carrying out more personalized studies to find specific medicine to a specific person based on their DNA.
Although the field is new, so much has been accomplished in just ten to twenty years.


•    Tell us about some of the research papers you have worked on so far…
My PhD thesis was on the History of Eritrean Genetics in Relation to East Africa. It is believed that humans originated in Africa, and I believe that Eritrea has a part in that. All pieces of evidence that have been discovered in Eritrea point in that direction. East Africa, as the origin of humans, is the most divers in terms of genetics.
We are also inferring that the sematic languages originate in these parts of Africa. We are going to need more evidence but we believe that pastoralism also started in these areas and expanded to the whole Africa.

There is also research that is being carried out internationally about Tuberculosis. Everyone is exposed to tuberculosis as it is an airborne disease. Nonetheless, only 10% are exposed. We are doing research through an international collaboration to find out why that happens. Many people are involved in the project. What is motivating about this research is that we are able to contribute a little at an international level.

Another project is about the genetic history of the Green Sahara 10,000 years ago and what the migration was like. The project focuses on the Sahara Desert when it was green. This study is also being carried out in collaboration with other scholars.

•    You are one of the many students who had been given scholarship by the Government to study abroad. How has that helped you and others students just like yourself?
I did both my MSc and PhD through scholarships the government offered me. There are many people who were presented with such opportunities and have come back to work in the field they were able to graduate in. I remember the first time I got my scholarship was during the war. The same goes for the second time when I was doing my PhD as well; the country was in the “no war no peace” situation. But even during these hard times, many students got free education and benefited from that. No doubt, the opportunity has lifted the higher educational level of the country. What I want to stress more is that those of us who had the chance should bring back the experience and knowledge and share it with others. It can be challenging sometimes; however, we should consider our culture and beliefs and the existing situation we have in our country. That is the only way we can succeed in implementing the knowledge we have.

•    Anything you would like to share before we conclude our interview, Dr. Eyoab?

We lack in the awareness of the community and students. We have to do more presentations and lift up the knowledge of the students in science. Our minds shouldn’t be limited to what we can do with the resources we have. We can do small scale research. Our students need to believe that they can make the most of the opportunities they are attaining. We are Africans, studied in Africa and we can solve the problems in Africa. Hopefully, we will make the field of Population Genetics popular and get to the level of the developed countries. Whether you want to study genetics, history, language or medicine, DNA is the center of it all. I also believe that we can accomplish much more if all the departments come together and work in collaboration with one another.

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