20-Storied careers: The unexpected path to Ethiopian rifts
Choosing a major and university is one of the earliest major life decisions—but what if you had to leave those choices up to chance? Today we hear from Dr. Ameha Muluneh, who grew up wanting to be an engineer, but is now an award-winning geologist studying the African crust. He shares how he found his path after a chance assignment to major in geology and his vision for the future of science in Ethiopia.
This episode was produced by Sara Whitlock and mixed by Collin Warren. Illustration by Jace Steiner.
Shane: 00:00 Hi, Vicky.
Vicky: 00:00 Hi, Shane.
Shane: 00:02 What’s the biggest decision you’ve made based on chance?
Vicky: 00:08 Well, what do you mean by chance?
Shane: 00:10 Yeah, I guess it’s kind of an oxymoron. You wouldn’t make a big decision… You wouldn’t make a decision if it was just chance. I guess a decision that was either… It was out of your control or there was a fork in the road and you just decided to go one way because that was the opportunity presented to you, but it could have been… You know what I mean? Something like that.
Vicky: 00:32 I live my whole life that way, actually. I feel like I’ve mentioned this before.
Shane: 00:38 That’s terrifying to me.
Vicky: 00:40 Oh.
Shane: 00:41 Oh my gosh. I’m so-
Vicky: 00:43 Don’t be terrified.
Shane: 00:44 No, go ahead. What were you saying?
Vicky: 00:47 No, I just take… I feel like that’s how I ended up… I feel like I’ve mentioned this before. That’s how I ended up going to science camp and meeting Brian. That’s how I found my college was just like, I got a brochure in the mail and I was like, okay, that’ll work. So I applied to only one college. That’s kind of how I got-
Shane: 01:01 Is that how you ended up at AGU?
Vicky: 01:04 I guess. I mean, how do you end up at any job really?
Shane: 01:07 Totally fair. I mean, I guess you’re throwing a bunch of things out there and whatever comes along, comes along.
Vicky: 01:11 Yeah. It was in my wheelhouse, but… Yeah. So I feel like that’s just a good, nice, easygoing way to be. How about you?
Shane: 01:22 Oh my goodness. I am not an easygoing person. I think I’m better than I used to be. No, I guess what started this all, in my pursuit of being more easygoing about any sort of decision maybe or not, was I have my PhD and towards the end of grad school, I was looking to go either into academia, do the traditional professor, teach, research, whatever, route, or I was really interested in the science policy world. This was before communication was even a thought that I had. And so I literally applied to things in both sections and I got… One day, I remember I was at lunch with my lab and I got this email. It said you’ve been selected as a whatever year sea grant canals fellowship finalist or whatever. It’s essentially this policy post doc that brought me from Tennessee to DC to work in science policy. And that was the thing that I got and that’s… Because it came first, I thought, yep, I’m going to do this. That’s literally a pretty major change in my trajectory, but was because I got this email before I potentially got offered any other sort of position in the more traditional academic research field.
Vicky: 02:40 Yeah. That’s the best. Look at you now.
Shane: 02:44 Look at me now. I’m podcasting with you, sitting in my basement. It’s great.
Vicky: 02:48 All because of that email.
Shane: 02:52 Thanks, chance.
Shane: 02:57 Science is fascinating. But don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.
Vicky: 03:07 And I’m Vicky Thompson.
Shane: 03:08 And this is Third Pod From the Sun. So, some things work out perfectly as planned and then sometimes the plans are made for us. And so, today, we’re hearing from producer Sarah Whitlock about Ameha Muluneh’s career and all the ways he made the best of circumstances that were dealt to him by chance. Hi, Sarah.
Sarah: 03:31 Hey, Shane. Yeah. Ameha worked really, really hard to make a career in the face of a lot of obstacles. In fact, he might have actually been an engineer instead of a geologist if he’d had his way.
Vicky: 03:39 But he did become a geologist, right?
Sarah: 03:42 Yeah, he did. An award-winning one, actually. In 2020, Ameha was given AGU’s Africa Award for Research Excellence in Earth Science. He’s made vital contributions to our understanding of continental rifting in Africa, which is basically how the Earth’s crust bends and eventually breaks apart.
Vicky: 03:56 And to remind folks, this is part of our current miniseries, where we talk to scientists who have written for AGU’s science storytelling journal, Perspectives of Earth and Space scientists.
Shane: 04:07 Great. So let’s hear about how he got from engineering to studying the African crust.
Ameha Muluneh: 04:20 I am Ameha. Ameha Muluneh. I am an associate professor at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and I also have a position here in Germany at German Research Center for Geosciences.
Sarah: 04:34 Can we start by giving us a little bit of background about how you fell in love with science originally?
Ameha Muluneh: 04:40 So I fell in love with science. I remember it. When I was ninth grade, there was a class assignment. I got all the questions right and the professor patted me on the shoulder. That was an exciting moment for me because we didn’t expect anything from that professor. He’s a very serious guy. Before that, I had no inclination to science. I want to do all the assignments, I want to attend all the classes, but I was not particularly interested in any subject. From that moment on, I really fall in love with physics. You cannot do physics without math, so I start focusing on both math and physics.
Sarah: 05:24 Nice, nice. So what happened after that? Was the rest of your high school career mostly focused on doing a lot of physics then?
Ameha Muluneh: 05:31 Yes. Yes. I did lots of physics. But in order to pass from one grade to another, you have to take all the exams. Since I focus on physics and math, my grades were really terrible. But anyways. I managed to pass all the exams. In Ethiopia, when you finish high school, you have to join the university if you want to pursue a career. There was this exam, Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Exam. It was really tough at the moment because there were quite a few universities at the time. I studied really hard, to be honest, to pass this exam and join university. Luckily, I passed and I joined Addis Ababa University, which was the best. That was more or less the beginning before my university life.
Sarah: 06:22 Nice. I was a little bit curious about the process because it sounds like you get assigned to a university in Ethiopia. You really wanted to go to Addis Ababa and it ended up happening, but that was kind of out of your control, it sounds like.
Ameha Muluneh: 06:36 Exactly. Exactly. Because in Ethiopia, your grades do not matter. The government will assign you to any university you are going to attend. You really need to be lucky to go to the university of your choice. I was lucky to go to Addis Ababa University. It was like eight kilometers from my home. It was very, very comfortable for me to go back and forth, so I stay at home. I don’t need to stay in the university dormitory. It was a really nice opportunity, to be honest.
Sarah: 07:09 Yeah, I’m really glad that ended up working out so well. And then it sounded like, once you got to university, you had an interesting process for choosing your major as well. And maybe geology wasn’t your first choice perhaps?
Ameha Muluneh: 07:21 No, it wasn’t. It was my ninth choice. Because what happened was, when I joined the university, I was really excited because I didn’t have any experience. None of my family members went to university, so I didn’t know what it felt like. But I had this idea, this imagination, that university would be really interesting and really great. Of course, it is, but you don’t have the freedom. It’s more or less like a high school. You attend a class, you take exam, and then you pass to the next grade, which I didn’t like. I had really rough time, especially during freshman. But unfortunately, what happens in freshman determines the rest of your career in the university. My grades were really terrible. At the end of freshman, I had to choose a department, a major, but my grades were really bad, so I had to get geology, which was my ninth choice at the time.
Sarah: 08:22 How many was that out of? Was it like your ninth choice out of 10?
Ameha Muluneh: 08:23 No. I think around 15 or something.
Sarah: 08:28 Okay. I’m curious. What were the majors that you had higher up? Were they also science majors? I know you were kind of at that point…
Ameha Muluneh: 08:37 No. At that point, we all want to go to engineering. Like civil engineering or electrical engineering. There was a high competition because all the smart students want to be engineers. There was no room for us, so I have to get geology at the time. I don’t think anybody like to go to geology because we hear this information that geologists usually… There are so many cliches. Some of them happen to be true. Once I joined geology, I fall in love with it. But not all parts of geology. Only some part of geology.
Sarah: 09:20 Yeah, I’ll ask more about that in a second, but I am kind of curious what cliches people had in their mind. What perceptions they had of geology.
Ameha Muluneh: 09:28 Because our seniors, most of them couldn’t be able to get jobs so they couldn’t be able to afford rent or something. It was really tough for them. There are only few opportunities for geologists at the time. Now, the situation is changing. If you are a geologist, you are sure you will get a very nice job so at least you can survive. But at that time, when I was a student, the story was quite different. Because of this reason, few people liked to join geology.
Shane: 10:11 Oh, interesting. So students in Ethiopia are assigned to both their university and their major once they’re in school.
Vicky: 10:17 And it sounds like Ameha didn’t really start out wanting to be a geologist.
Sarah: 10:22 Yeah, that’s right. He actually got excited about geology after he was assigned to it during his studies in undergrad. But actually, that wasn’t the last time that chance played a big role in his career. Things get even more interesting when Ameha applies to get his master’s degree.
Ameha Muluneh: 10:35 I really liked plate tectonics. The general idea of plate tectonics. And also I liked seismology. Mostly, I spend my time studying books that talk about plate tectonics. How the theory started and what we know about plate tectonics, what we don’t know, what we imagine. Stuff like this was really, really inspiring for me. I wanted to read about geology and plate tectonics and also wanted to contribute something to the science. That was the interesting part, but the rest I was not that much interested, to be honest.
Sarah: 11:18 It sounds like, after that, you were already interested in going to graduate school.
Ameha Muluneh: 11:22 Yes. While I was an undergrad student, I wanted to join this observatory. There is a nice observatory in our campus, which is called Geophysical Observatory. The name has now changed to a very long name. I don’t remember exactly. But it was called Geophysical Observatory. I really wanted to join this institute, but my grades were really terrible so they didn’t allow me to join. They allowed me to visit the place, but they couldn’t hire me as a graduate assistant. In fact, they told me to come back after some time with probably master’s degree and then they will see what they can do about my application. So that was my goal when I did my master’s thesis.
Sarah: 12:12 That sounds like it was quite an interesting process. There was some chance, I think, that happened with that. Do you want to talk about the process of getting your master’s degree?
Ameha Muluneh: 12:21 After getting my degree, my bachelor’s, there was no chance for me to stay in academia, so I went out. I applied for a position in industry. I found a nice place in a road construction company and I worked there for 11 months. Then, I moved to geological survey of Ethiopia. I stayed there for four years. It was a really exciting place because we had so much freedom to do basically whatever we want to do. We have to go to the field and prepare a report and then do our own research. So I took that opportunity and joined Addis Ababa University again for my master’s after working for geological survey for two years. That was the beginning of a new career, master’s degree, but again… In the beginning, I forgot to mention that I am really afraid of exams. When I returned back for my master’s, I was the only student… There was exams. I failed most of the… Not failed, but I had so many C’s for the exam. But the master’s thesis work was really exciting. I did paleo-magnetic survey in the main Ethiopian rift on the Northern Afar rift with [inaudible 00:13:38] and it was quite a success. Apparently, we waited for a couple of years to publish this data. In 2013, we published the data and it was quite a successful master’s thesis work, I believe.
Ameha Muluneh: 13:55 But the way I chose this particular subject for my master’s was really interesting. Because, in the beginning, my initial plan was to attend hydrogeology master’s course. Because when I was in geological survey, I used to work in hydrogeology projects. So it made sense to join hydrogeology. But the university registrar lost my document. I went to the head of the department to complain about this stuff and he suggested, “We couldn’t find your application, so you have to is join paleontology or structural geology,” so I decided structural geology. After a couple of days, just before the entrance exam, they found my document and they asked me to sit for hydrogeology exam, but I already made up my mind. So I joined structural geology as the only student in the stream.
Sarah: 14:52 Wow. That seems like such a huge shift in topic. How did you kind of cope with that?
Ameha Muluneh: 14:59 When I was in undergrad, I used to read lots of plate tectonics books, so I didn’t believe structural geology would be quite difficult for me to catch up with. I didn’t mind to join structural geology for that main reason.
Sarah: 15:16 Yeah. Wow. That’s a good attitude. I feel like I would be so frustrated. Especially when they found your application materials right before the entrance.
Ameha Muluneh: 15:27 There were so many dilemmas, but finally, I decided to go with my gut. I am really happy that I did.
Sarah: 15:35 That’s awesome. I’m glad that that ended up working out. And then it sounds like you had some interesting field research in your master’s program too. It sounded like there was a lot of strenuous field research.
Ameha Muluneh: 15:48 Yeah, because I want to do on paleomagnetism. We decided to go to Afar and collect samples. Afar is extremely hot. In addition, paleomag drilling is a really tough job. It was a whole new experience for me to combine. The environment was really tough. The field work was really tough. But when I come back to the laboratory, then I notice that the field work and the environment were not as tough enough. In the office, it’s extremely tiresome because you have to demagnetize the samples. You have to do so many laboratory work to find few parameters, which sounds really easy for the reader, but you have to pass through all these processes to come up with those few numbers. And the interpretation was really exciting. So yeah. It was a really interesting moment for me.
Sarah: 16:49 That’s great. How did you keep your motivation up through all of these challenges? Because it sounds like it was difficult to get into the graduate program and then it sounds like maybe there were some difficulties after you got back from the field work. How did you stay motivated?
Ameha Muluneh: 17:06 I grew up alone and I am the only child to my parents, so I didn’t have much experience with people. Whenever I face some challenges and whenever there were some difficulties, but it doesn’t involve people… As long as it doesn’t involve people, I think I can do it. That’s what I used to tell to myself. Because if it doesn’t involve people, then I’m ready to challenge myself. That was the motivation I have. Still now, I really have that motivation to conduct research. I like to collaborate with people, but as long as there is something I have to do by myself, then I’m ready to do it. Even if it’s really tough.
Vicky: 17:56 It’s so wild that Ameha’s whole path was changed by an admissions mistake. And so late in his career.
Shane: 18:03 I know. I just like… How did it turn out? What’s his research focus now that he’s a professor?
Sarah: 18:08 The work that he’s doing now actually started with research that he did in his PhD. Today, he’s studying things that are happening on the surface of the African crest. Things like erosion and the deposition of sediments and the ways those things are changing the movement of the plates along the Ethiopian rift.
Ameha Muluneh: 18:22 After finishing my master’s study, I tried to apply for a PhD because I was really motivated by master’s thesis result and it was nice. I really didn’t want to return back to industry because I enjoyed the freedom in academia. When I was doing my master’s thesis, it was really exciting so I don’t want to go back to industry. So I started applying for a PhD position. In mid-2010, I received this call from Sapienza University. University of Rome. The call was for international students. So I applied for this fellowship and there were two spots. There were so many applicants and they shortlisted nine people. They took the first. I was in third position and the first one didn’t want to take the offer so they offered me this PhD scholarship. At the end of 2010, I moved to Sapienza and began an exciting career as a PhD student.
Ameha Muluneh: 19:32 In the first year of my PhD, Carlo, my advisor, introduced me to a very influential person in the tectonics of… or understanding the tectonics of the main Ethiopian rift. His name is Giacomo Corti. I used to make a frequent travel to Florence. He’s in Florence. He’s at the National Research Council of Italy. I used to make a frequent travel to him to understand some of the aspects of the main Ethiopian rift. He supported me in many ways to finish my PhD. It was quite tough, to be honest. It was enjoyable. At the same time, it was really tough.
Sarah: 20:13 Yeah. I bet. It’s great that you were able to find that sort of mentorship even if you did have to travel a little bit for that. If you were to summarize of your PhD work in a couple of sentences, what would you say is the main finding?
Ameha Muluneh: 20:29 The main finding was that… I summarize it this way. We found something really interesting when we combined several observations. Like from physiology, from earthquake focal mechanism, and from GPS data. When we combined these three, what we see is quite a little bit different from what you see when you really focus on one aspect of these components. That was the main finding to us. We managed to explain what’s happening in the main Ethiopian rift. Although there are so many local variations, but in general, the formation of the main Ethiopian rift is influenced by Nubia plate and Somalia plate. Their motion really contributes to what we see today in the rift. But there are also so many variations. That’s what I understood after a couple of years.
Sarah: 21:27 You’ve continued to study the Ethiopian rift in your work as a professor, correct?
Ameha Muluneh: 21:32 Yes. Yes. Now, I use a numerical model because that’s a new addition to my CV. I start using numerical modeling to investigate what’s happening in there. We have some inputs from earthquake data and GPS data and now we have a new method, which is really exciting and elegant. Numerical modeling results. So we combine everything.
Sarah: 21:59 That’s great. What kind of things are you working on next? Do you have a project on the horizon that you’re really excited about?
Ameha Muluneh: 22:07 Yes. At the moment, I’m working to understand the contribution of surface processes. Because in the previous models, we focused mainly on the magma that’s coming out of the deep part of the earth controls what we see today. The surface tectonics is mainly driven by magma input. But now, we see that there are so many surface processes which contribute to the tectonics style of deformation. A lot of scientists focus on these kind of surface processes. Here in GFZ, German Research Center for Geosciences, I focus on the role of surface processes on the tectonics of the main Ethiopian rift. We already have some data. It’s really exciting. We have to dig a little deeper, but so far it’s really exciting.
Sarah: 22:59 That sounds really fascinating. Just to make sure the listeners understand, what kind of surface processes are you talking about when you’re looking at those things?
Ameha Muluneh: 23:08 Good question. When we say surface processes, we are talking about erosions and sedimentation. Materials are eroded and they have to be deposited at some point. We try to see how this variation in erosion and deposition rates control the style of deformation in the main Ethiopian rift.
Sarah: 23:41 And what do you think… I mean, obviously we want to understand what’s happening in the Ethiopian rift just because it’s good to understand. But do you think there’s any sort of applications to a better understanding of that that people might see in Ethiopia?
Ameha Muluneh: 23:54 Yes. Because the more we understand the rift, the better for resource explorations. In addition to my work related with the tectonics of the main Ethiopian rift, I advise many students working on geothermal resource exploration. We use geophysical data. We use satellite remote sensing data to pinpoint where geothermal resources are localized. And then we try to understand through modeling where these points are really located. This is a very nice contribution to understand the resource exploration in the rift.
Sarah: 24:40 That’s really exciting. Is there a lot of geothermal power currently being used in Ethiopia?
Ameha Muluneh: 24:46 Not really, but we have a huge resource. We are in the beginning of exploration states. We have so many potentially usable sites for geothermal resources, but energy production is really in the early stage.
Sarah: 25:03 That’s exciting then. That’ll be such a great resource going forward. I’ve heard a lot of really exciting things about geothermal energy. I know you mentioned at the end of the paper that you wrote that you have a really strong focus on mentorship of future generations of scientists. Do you have anything you want to share about that?
Ameha Muluneh: 25:20 Yes. Since 2020, we published about 12 papers. Most of these papers are written by either master or PhD students I advise or co-advise or examine their thesis. I really focus on helping junior scientists because I benefited a lot from working with really smart and kind scientists so I have to contribute something to the next generation of scientists. I believe we have to contribute, really, something to the young generation because they have to be well trained. They’re the future of the continent and the future of Ethiopia. I really believe that, so I focus on helping students to develop their career.
Sarah: 26:11 What kind of vision do you have? What do you hope that Ethiopian science will look like in the future as far as what kinds of research projects get funded and things like that?
Ameha Muluneh: 26:21 If you see in the beginning, almost all papers… I don’t have a clear statistical data to suggest this, but based on my observation, almost all papers are co-written by scientists from the US or from Europe. But now many scientists are well-equipped. Many Ethiopian sciences are well-equipped, so they advise their own students and, if you see papers, most of the papers are written by Ethiopian scientists alone. But this doesn’t mean there is no contribution from scientists from US or UK. I mean, UK and also from other European countries. Because we trained in these institutions. We have so many colleagues and they empower us so we can a chance to empower our fellow Ethiopians.So, in the future, I think most of the papers will be written by Ethiopian scientists and they will spend a lot of time exploring their own resources. I really see a bright future ahead of us. But this doesn’t mean that we have to collaborate with European scientists or scientists from the US. Because now funding agencies have designed these kind of projects which really focus on Africa and that’s a huge deal for us.
Ameha Muluneh: 27:43 So far, I benefited from three of such research fundings. One is from [inaudible 00:27:52] Foundation. There is what we call [inaudible 00:27:54] Foundation. It’s a Japan-Africa research collaboration. And the other one is Oxford-Africa research collaboration. And the one I am now received is Alexander von Humboldt Grant, but there is a sub-unit of this grant, which is called Georg Forster Research Fellowship. And this is designed for students or for scientists from third world countries. We benefited a lot from this kind of research funding. So I suggest, for my fellow Ethiopian scientists or African scientists, to focus on these specific grants because you can get a lot of money for research so you can travel and empower yourself.
Vicky: 28:52 Okay, Shane. I’m going to stop you before you try to make any witty quips and we should just let Ameha’s words speak for themselves.
Shane: 29:00 Okay. All right. That is totally fair. So with that, that’s all from Third Pod From the Sun.
Vicky: 29:05 Thanks so much to Sarah for bringing us this story and to Ameha for sharing his work with us.
Shane: 29:11 This episode was produced by Sarah with audio engineering from Colin Warren and art by Jay Steiner.
Vicky: 29:17 We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review the podcast and you can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.
Shane: 29:25 Thanks, all, and we’ll see you next week.
Shane: 29:31 When you’re ready.
Vicky: 29:32 Okay, Shane. I’m going to stop you before you try to make any witting quip.
Shane: 29:37 Witting?
Vicky: 29:38 Witting? Witty!
Shane: 29:39 What’s a witting? Witty.
Vicky: 29:39 Oh god. I can’t talk.
Excellent podcast. Very interesting to learn about Ameha’s inspiring career. Especially his dedication to learn about the earth’s geological processes including the Ethiopian Rift.