Q&A with Prof. Boshra Salem, 1990 MAB Young Scientist Award laureate

Prof. Boshra Salem was awarded the MAB Young Scientist Award in 1990 for the project "Detection of temporal environmental changes in arid lands by remote sensing. Case study: North coastal desert of Egypt”.
She is known for leading ground-breaking work on land-use changes in the Omayed Biosphere Reserve and for the Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands (SUMAMAD) project. As an expert, she has been part of MAB for more than 30 years, first as a member and rapporteur for the Egyptian MAB National Committee and eventually as President of the MAB International Coordinating Council. 
A career scientist, she contributed to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as one of the authors of the Desertification Synthesis Report, and she sat on the Committee for Scientific Planning and Review at the International Science Council.
Prof. Salem is the founder and manager of the Department of Environmental Science, and its remote sensing laboratory, at the University of Alexandria in Egypt. She is now the dean of postgraduate Studies at the University of Alexandria. 
The work of young scientists is very precious. We have to sustain the work of coming generations. We cannot afford to miss out on science.
Professor Boshra Salem

In 1990, you were one of the first laureates of the MAB Young Scientist Awards, which had just begun a year earlier. What did you know about the MAB Programme at the time? And why did you decide to apply for the Awards?

This was a long time ago. In 1990, I had just finished my PhD in remote sensing and GIS at Imperial College London and I returned to Egypt. Upon my return, I joined the Egyptian MAB National Committee. The late Professor Mohammad Ayyad, who was my supervisor for my MSc and PhD, was also the founder of the MAB National Committee and he invited me to get involved. I was really happy to join, I just wanted to continue my work and do publications. At the same time, I thought the Awards would be a good opportunity to support my work and the grant could help with purchasing images and other materials.

It was such good news to be accepted. At that time, I was not really a scientist, I was a researcher. Receiving that award, to be called a scientist, that really encouraged me to do more work. I was happy with the label.

In practice, what did you do with the Award’s grant?

In the early 1990s, monitoring environmental changes or land-use changes with satellite images was very new. It was not easy to pursue this work and few people knew how to process the data.

I wanted to continue building on my PhD project. The satellite images helped update the work. I was studying land-use changes in the western coastal desert of Egypt, where the Omayed Biosphere Reserve is located. Especially, I was evaluating the effect of those changes on biodiversity and natural resources. This was important work for the biosphere reserve. A lot of research was taking place on the ground, but nothing had been done from the bird’s eye view.

The grant money made a huge difference. I used the funds to improve the remote sensing lab at university. I purchased satellite images, hardware, software and the licence for image processing. This software licence is still held in my name today! The lab is now used by young researchers to obtain their MSc and PhD.


What was it like to start off in Egypt as a young scientist? 

It was certainly worth it. One thing I would like to mention here is that the Egyptian MAB National Committee has now been doing the same as the MAB International Coordinating Council. We are now issuing a young scientist award at the national level. It includes a 5000 EGP grant. 

We are happy to continue with this model. I encourage young scientists working in this field to apply, to both the national and international awards! I have been there, it helps a lot. The grant goes to the field, into analyses, etc.

We are seeking to expand the reputation of MAB’s work in Egypt. At the same time, it exposes the work in the biosphere reserve and how important it is.

You know, the biosphere reserve is going through a rough time. We are concerned as it is the only one representing Mediterranean ecosystems in Egypt. We have to carry on with the work and encourage students and young scientists.

Do you believe your work has led to change? Was it taken into account?

Well, at that time, the Omayed Biosphere Reserve had no detailed management plan. So, when I produced this work, the data was used to establish the very first management plan. Of course, now we are continuously monitoring the biosphere reserve.

This provided decision-makers with an overview of ecosystems in the biosphere reserve, and how and where degradations were taking place or how areas were changing, converting to other uses. It was important to have a bird’s eye view. Decisions depended on this.

During your career, how have you witnessed the effects of climate change? How do you approach this topic in your work?

One of the reports submitted during the work on the Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands project (SUMAMAD) was on the impact of climate change on the biosphere reserve. In this report, we presented data going back 50 years. We monitored how rain patterns and temperatures have changed. We found big changes in the area, not just in the flora, but also in fauna. The seasonality of plants and animals have completely changed, even bird migration. It is very important to closely monitor these changes.

That was one point. Another point is to monitor the impact on human communities, especially how the locals are changing their activities according to the changed conditions. In our case, that’s longer droughts. Some have completely left the traditional way of living there, like land ranging and herding. Such activities are completely changing because people are having to move from one place to the other, mostly towards the north, where there is more rain and vegetation. We are putting a lot of pressure on that one area and leaving others to be eroded and degraded, and so forth. This needs to be closely monitored. We need to find other ways to help local communities and reduce pressure on the environment.

You have been involved with MAB ever since getting the Young Scientists Award. You even became President of the MAB International Coordinating Council! Tell us more about that.

It was very exciting. I was a member of the Egyptian MAB National Committee for 10 years and then a rapporteur for 15 years. That is how I became one of the members of the Egyptian delegation to the International Coordinating Council. And then, I was nominated President of the Council, after 30 years with MAB with the assent of 36 countries.

I was so happy! At that meeting, the delegations all agreed to having me as President. I appreciate the trust they put in me, you know, our work was so inspiring. I had three years as President and I learnt a lot from everybody… From the MAB Secretariat, from the delegations, from the issues they discussed in the biosphere reserves, from setting up the Lima Action Plan, from all the experts! I have no words to express how exciting it was. I wanted to help, to encourage and to engage with everybody in MAB.

At the 50-year mark, how do you see the future for MAB? 

Well, I think the Programme is extending. I am looking at the new biosphere reserves all the time. I am looking as well at the new countries engaging with this programme.

You know, out of its 50 years, I worked 30 years with MAB, so almost two thirds. What can I say? We have learnt a lot, I think it has been a very successful period, but we need to encourage MAB to reach further and to extend to regions that have not been reached yet. 

For example, I would like here to remember again the late professor Mohammad Ayyad. He is the one who started MAB in Egypt and that was very significant for the Arab region. Today, we still have very few biosphere reserves compared with other regions, in terms of numbers and types of ecosystems. Maybe we should continue to cover more ecosystems in this Arab region, not least because the conditions are so particular.

I think what is needed is more exposure. Because even today, some countries still do not know about MAB. Maybe it is because IUCN categories of protected areas do not include MAB, so it does not mention the name “biosphere reserves”. 

There should be more exposure because the idea itself of a biosphere reserve - the concept itself of having conservation and development going together - is very unique. 

People need to know about this. I would like to tell young scientists that exposure is important. Organising workshops to demonstrate how things happened in the past and how we can plan future actions together is all very necessary. Engaging with the people, following up on the very real impact of climate change is crucial. If we do not, we will miss out. 

That leads us perfectly to the next question. What advice would you give to future scientists?

Well, apart from exposure being important… I would say it is not easy to work and do research that always comes up with successful results. They will need perseverance, they will have to be openminded, they will need to engage and work with other researchers. The most difficult will be to find an outcome for research. 

Integrated research is what is needed now. There must be more participation by development communities, governments and NGOs. We cannot just work and stay alone. Doing work in our closed labs and in our universities is not going to work anymore. For it to be useful, research work has to be connected and integrated.

You know, I think young scientists need to be encouraged and supported. Especially at the moment. Working online is not the same as working face to face. So, we need to support them, put more effort into reaching out to young researchers. The resources are never really enough, but the function of science is very important. We cannot afford to miss out on science. 

This is an important message, I’d like to say the work of young scientists is very precious. We have to sustain the work of coming generations. Concerning environmental science, we have to think about sustainability in a larger way, not just a mention of sustainability in our research, but really apply it. We are really concerned. We are losing ecosystem services. This is really obvious. If you have been here as long as me and if you go now and look at ecosystem conditions you really see the difference. 

In one of the interviews I did with members of the local communities who are more than 60 years old, I asked them: “what is the difference, you are now 60, what is the difference in 60 years’ time?”. They were all concerned about losing the fertility of the land, about drought conditions. This really has to be monitored. We have to think about the value of ecosystems.

And finally, what would tell young scientists thinking about applying for this award?

I would tell them to concentrate on the criteria. Do not just apply for the grant because there is an opportunity or an offer. Just concentrate on the criteria of the work. Look at the previous work, find what people have done so far and try to continue and fill in gaps that need to be filled in, especially in biosphere reserves. There is a lot we can provide to the local communities there.

This reminds me of one thing I was really happy to achieve with SUMAMAD. We provided the Bedouin women in the region with IDs. They had no IDs before. They were completely deprived of rights, registration for marriages or motherhood. It impacted their heritage, they were sometimes not counted as humans. Giving them IDs made them feel that they were equal to men too and they could access a lot of services from the government there. It was very important to have this work done, but of course, it was not easy to intrude into the Bedouin community and convince the husbands that their wives should have IDs as well. But in the end, it gave women recognition so that they can have income-generating activities. 

I think this kind of work is what should be continued. I cannot count the number of gaps to be filled and I encourage all scientists applying for this award to look back at all the work that has been done, analyse it, and take it further. We cannot just repeat work. We have to go on and continue.

Professor Salem, thank you very much indeed for telling us about your experience and your advice. It has been great to hear what you have to say. I think your message will be inspiring for young scientists.

Thank you all for considering me for this interview, for the time to talk and listen to my comments. 


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