BGS blogs

Harnessing global collaboration: UK/Kenya partnership in soil erosion research 

Collaboration between scientists is vital in today's interconnected world to further scientific progress. In environmental research, issues such as soil erosion demand collaboration on an international scale. 

31/05/2024 By BGS Press
Sophia and Job at BGS conducting specialist analysis of Pu in soils.
Sophia and Job at BGS conducting specialist analysis of Pu in soils. Source: Thomas Barlow

Collaboration can provide an exchange of information vital to the advancement of environmental research. One such partnership is the relationship between BGS and the University of Eldoret (UoE) in Kenya. This partnership not only demonstrates the benefits of international collaboration but also highlights the importance of addressing global challenges collectively.  

Job Isaboke (UoE) and Sophia Dowell (BGS) are research students at their institutions and have been working as part of a broader team to measure the rate of soil erosion in western Kenya using novel chemical methods. For their PhD projects, they aimed to understand the effect land management can have on soil erosion using plutonium isotopes (Sophia) and the associated loss of micronutrients from the soil (Job), which is important for crop composition and onward dietary intake for animal and human health.

Soil erosion  

Soil erosion is a widespread environmental issue that poses a significant threat to agricultural productivity, water quality and ecosystem health worldwide. In Kenya, soil erosion is driven by factors such as deforestation, unsustainable land-management practices and climate change. However, quantitative data describing the amounts and patterns of soil erosion and sedimentation can be used to inform sustainable soil conservation practices. This data can also aid in the validation of predictive models for an improved understanding of factors influencing the acceleration of erosion processes.  

Working together 

One of the primary advantages of international cooperation is the sharing of expertise and resources. Bringing together diverse backgrounds benefits research at both BGS and UoE by combining advanced technologies and methodologies, such as specialist mass spectrometry methods to detect ultra-trace plutonium in the UK, with invaluable local knowledge and on-the-ground insights from Kenyan counterparts. This allows for a more comprehensive approach to studying soil erosion, encompassing both scientific rigour and practical applicability.  

Ultimately, the collaboration between BGS and UoE stands as a key step toward securing the sustainable future of this agriculturally crucial region and works towards addressing several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including: 

  • poverty (SDG 1) 
  • life below water (SDG 14) 
  • life on land (SDG 15)  

Beyond scientific advancements, working together to research soil erosion fosters cultural exchange and capacity building. Through joint research initiatives, Job and Sophia have been able to learn from each others’ perspectives, approaches to research and experiences. This cultural exchange has not only enhanced both their roles as early-career researchers, but has also strengthened relationships between BGS and UoE to promote mutual understanding.  

The international collaboration also contributes to the development of scientific capacity in Kenya. By providing training opportunities, mentorship, networks and technology transfer for members of both UK and Kenyan institutions, early-career researchers are empowered to tackle environmental challenges independently.

Sophia and Job working in the Oroba Valley, Kenya, to collect reference site samples (2020). Source: Odipo Osano
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Sophia and Job working in the Oroba Valley, Kenya, to collect reference site samples (2020). Source: Odipo Osano

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The opportunities created by this collaborative project collectively and individually demonstrate the potential for scientific research to address environmental issues whilst developing scientific capacity in Kenya and the UK. The two-way exchange of staff and paired Kenya/UK PhD students, including Job and Sophia, provided an enriching experience for all involved.

Michael Watts, head of the BGS International Geoscience Research and Development programme

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So much can be achieved with collaboration and a working international team breaks much more than just academic barriers. The larger body of knowledge would benefit through building collaborations globally, as this work has demonstrated.

Prof Odipo Osano, University of Eldoret, Kenya

Through this partnership, Sophia and Job are working towards informing evidence-based decision making and developing targeted interventions to mitigate against future soil erosion. Through attending workshops and conferences, they have both had the opportunity to engage with stakeholders ranging from policymakers and land managers to farmers and community leaders. These workshops have allowed them to understand the best way to communicate their research to different stakeholders and further their understanding of the usability of the data, working on ways to target future research to ensure the maximum impact.  

Through fostering dialogue and knowledge exchange, the collaboration works towards the eventual adoption of sustainable land-management practices and helps to adopt agricultural practices aimed at preserving soil health and preventing erosion. 

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I feel my PhD research wouldn’t have been possible without the support from Kenyan counterparts at the University of Eldoret. Both Job and Prof Odipo Osano’s in-depth knowledge of the local area and dedication to the research have been invaluable. Without their help, the fieldwork wouldn’t have been possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where I wasn’t able to travel to Kenya to conduct the work myself. But, above all else, I feel this PhD opportunity has allowed me to grow, both professionally and personally, into the scientist I am today and for that I am extremely grateful.

Dr Sophia Dowell

As part of the collaboration, Sophia recently gained her PhD in ‘Utilising plutonium isotopes to evaluate soil erosion in tropical East African agri-systems’ and Job has gained a master’s degree in environmental science; he is now working towards his PhD in ‘Dynamics of soil micronutrient loss and transfer as influenced by land management’. 

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As a PhD student from Kenya, I am grateful for the collaboration between UoE and BGS, which provided me with both laboratory training and financial resources. I appreciate the support from my UK supervisors, Dr Michael Watts and Dr Olivier Humphrey, and the entire BGS inorganic chemistry department team.

To be a successful scientist, one must undergo extensive training using advanced instrumentation and learn laboratory etiquette. Within the framework of my PhD research, I am currently working with Dr Sophia Dowell to determine soil erosion dynamics in tropical locations and link this to micronutrients in soils.

Job Isaboke


This research was conducted with the financial support of the following funders:  

  • BGS/NERC grant NE/R000069/1, entitled ‘Geoscience for Sustainable Futures’  
  • BGS Centre for Environmental Geochemistry programmes 
  • NERC National Capability International Geoscience programme, entitled ‘Geoscience to tackle global environmental challenges’ (NE/X006255/1)  

Additional financial support from:  

  • The Royal Society International Collaboration Awards 2019 grant ICA/R1/191077, entitled ‘Dynamics of environmental geochemistry and health in a lake-wide basin’ 
  • Natural Environment Research Council’s ARIES Doctoral Training Partnership (grant number NE/S007334/1)  
  • British Geological Survey University Funding Initiative (GA/19S/017)  

Additional support from:  

  • British Academy Early Career Researchers Writing Skills Workshop (WW21100104) 

About the authors 

Sophia Dowell is an analytical geochemist working within the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry Facility in Keyworth. Prior to this, she was a BUFI PhD student funded by the NERC ARIES doctoral training programme. This PhD was in collaboration with BGS, the University of Plymouth and the University of Eldoret in Kenya. 

Job Isaboke is a PhD researcher funded by BUFI/The Royal Society in collaboration with BGS and the University of Eldoret. He has had the opportunity to work within the UK alongside BGS during his PhD but is mainly based in Eldoret, Kenya.  

Publications arising from Sophia and Job’s PhDs 

Dowell, S M, Barlow, T S, Chenery, S R, Humphrey, O S, Isaboke, J, Blake, W H, Osano, O, and Watts, M J. 2023. Optimisation of plutonium separations using TEVA cartridges and ICP-MS/MS analysis for applicability to large-scale studies in tropical soils. Analytical Methods, Issue 34. DOI:  


Dowell, S M, Humphrey, O S, Blake, W H, Osano, O, Chenery, S, and Watts, M J. 2023. Ultra-trace analysis of fallout plutonium isotopes in soil: emerging trends and future perspectives. Chemistry Africa, Vol. 6, 2429–2444. DOI: 


Dowell, S M, Humphrey, O S, Gowing, C J B, Barlow, T S, Chenery, S R, Isaboke, J, Blake, W H, Osano, O and Watts, M J. 2024. Suitability of 210Pbex, 137Cs and 239+240Pu as soil erosion tracers in western Kenya. Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, Vol. 271. DOI: 


Dowell, S M, et al. In press. Plutonium isotopes can be used to model soil erosion in Kenya. Environmental Geochemistry and Health. 


Isaboke, J, Osano, O, Humphrey, O S, Dowell, S M, and Watts, M J. 2023. The nutritional quality of forage grass changes due to changing soil chemistry resulting from different land-use management in the Oroba Valley, Kenya. African Journal of Education, Science and Technology, Vol. 7(3), 40–54. 


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