Her love for rocks led Professor Hassina Mouri on a journey from Algeria to France and Finland, then to the USA and finally to South Africa. Today she is an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Department of Geology, where she is developing and leading an emerging field of science known as Medical Geology.
Mouri (48) was born in a mountainous region called Bejaia in Algeria but she has lived in South Africa for the past 13 years. She has an interesting passion – metamorphic rocks.
“I grew up in an area which was surrounded by mountains and rocks. I have always been fascinated by my surroundings and I longed to understand the geology of the world around me. As a student I had to choose between medical sciences and natural sciences. My fear of blood convinced me to choose natural sciences, specifically geology.”
Mouri studied at the University of Algiers and graduated cum laude. As an outstanding student of the year, she was awarded a Franco-Algerian Fellowship to continue her postgraduate studies in France. There she completed her Masters and PhD in metamorphic geology.
“I am interested in all kinds of rocks, but metamorphic rocks enchant and challenge me most. They are very complex rocks, which have gone through a process of change through time. One has to undertake a journey that can be some billion years into the past to understand them – at least 3.3 billion years in the case of the Limpopo belt where I am undertaking my research.”
After five years in Paris, Prof Mouri first joined the University of Helsinki, then the Geological Survey of Finland as a research associate. “It was a massive cultural and climatic shock. Finland was very cold and dark in winter and it took me time to adapt because I had to learn English and Finnish (she also speaks French, Arabic and Berber, one of the North African languages) to communicate. It was a very challenging experience at that time, but now I see it as a very positive and valuable learning experience.”
When she had the chance to swop Finland for the USA, she grabbed it with both hands. “I was presenting my work at an International conference in Spain when I was approached by one Professor who asked if I would be interested in a move to the US to join the University of Minnesota for a research position. Of course, I said ‘yes’ to another exciting experience.”
However, Minnesota’s weather was not much of an improvement on Helsinki. “Because Minnesota is in the northern part of the USA, temperatures in the summer easily reach 40 °C with high humidity and – 40 °C in the winter. It was definitely not a place I wanted to spend the rest of my life. As a child of Africa I felt I needed to return back to my continent.”
Prof Mouri’s wish was to return to Africa to contribute to the Research Development in Geosciences and Earth Science Education. In 2000 she accepted a tenured senior lectureship in the Department of Geology at the University of Pretoria as the first female academic geologist in that Department. In 2008, she was offered a senior lectureship at the University of Johannesburg, where she was promoted to an Associate Professor in 2010, a position she has held since then.
“I immediately felt at home in South Africa, even though some of my colleagues in the north felt I was crazy – this was because of the perception they have about SA. However, this did not discourage me. I knew nobody and yet I adapted quickly. Sometimes I think that South Africans don’t realize that they live in a paradise – the people, the climate, and of course the unique geology of the country. Each part of South Africa (like Barberton, Limpopo, Vredefort) with its unique rocks tells an interesting and fascinating geological story. This is unique to SA and you can’t find it anywhere else in the world. Based on all this, South Africa became my ‘adopted’ country.”
She feels that UJ really supports her efforts and that she has the opportunity to be very productive. The university also encourages her vision, like her new passion, medical geology. This is a subject that recently began to intrigue her and in February 2012, she established the South African Medical Geology Chapter, a division of the International Medical Geology Association (IMGA). She recently also delivered a very interesting public lecture at UJ entitled Medical Geology: An interdisciplinary emerging field of science.
“This is a return to my childhood dream of being involved in both medical and natural sciences. These fields have been seen as separate for many years but new advances in science and technology show that the geology of an area can have a direct influence on the composition of the minerals in the soil, water and air. These naturally occurring chemical elements or minerals can have a positive or negative impact on the health of people, animals and plants living in a particular environment.
“An example of health problems caused by naturally occurring geological problems around the world is thyroid cancer caused by trace elements such as vanadium, selenium, zinc, iodine and cadmium associated with volcanic eruptions.”
Prof Mouri says she would like to emphasize that medical geology is not about mining related issues. The issue is more about natural geological processes and material found in our environment that can be much more harmful with time. For example, toxic elements which are already present in the air that we breathe (from the dust) can cause serious lung diseases or in the soil and water, which over a period of prolonged exposure can cause cancer. These issues are very widespread especially on the African continent because of its complex geology and climate conditions.
She is currently supervising two postgraduate students in the field of medical geology. In August this year she was elected Councillor for the International Medical Geology Association (IMGA).The IMGA aims to provide a network and a forum to bring together the combined expertise of geologists and earth scientists, environmental scientists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, medical specialists and biochemists in order to characterise the properties of geological processes and agents, the dispersal of geological materials and their effects on the human population. In August 2012, Prof Mouri was elected Councillor for the International Union of Geological Science (IUGS). Together with her election for IMGA, it shows the interest that Prof Mouri is giving to the two fields of Science (Geology and Health).
Prof Mouri wishes to make a difference by working together with the medical community so that people can be warned if they live in areas where the natural environment can be hazardous to their health.
“There are currently no experts in medical geology and in Africa especially it is a new discipline of science. I am currently organising the first international symposium on medical geology in Africa, to be held in March 2014. It is so stimulating and encouraging that UJ and my colleagues at the Department are supporting me in this endeavour. I hope that all the departments from the faculty of Science as well as other faculties at UJ will join and work together in order to develop Medical Geology, because I believe this is the only way to make a difference and to contribute to the well being of our society.”