Physics prof working to advance project in Africa

Physics prof working to advance project in Africa


Forget the safari. Forget the food. When Tabbetha Dobbins spent 10 days in Africa this summer, the highlight was making the continent a better place.

Dobbins – that’s Dr. Dobbins, a professor of physics at Rowan University – made the 33-hour, indirect trek to Namibia, her first visit to Africa, to attend the Biennial African Conference on Fundamental Physics and Applications at the Namibian University of Science and Technology.

There she presented to students and worked with potential collaborators as part of the African Light Source Steering Committee, of which she has been a member since 2014.

That committee comprises scientists from around the world who are interested in bringing a synchrotron X-ray source to Africa, the only inhabitable continent without such equipment. Synchrotron X-ray equipment provides very high-intensity X-rays that cover a broad range of energy. It enables scientists to measure samples, for instance, of the structures of proteins and determine the shapes of viruses. For inorganic materials, such as ceramics and metals, scientists can measure samples that are very diluted and normally provide very little useful data.

“This is important because being able to measure in that mode can provide us with information that is unattainable otherwise,” Dobbins said.

The steering committee, an ad hoc group working to pull together scientists in Africa and African scientists living elsewhere, has been working on the initiative for four years.

“We’re following the model of the Middle East Light Source, SESAME – whose advocates told us, ‘It’s a battle that will be very, very hard fought, and the project will die many deaths but will ultimately succeed because it is a very compelling idea,’” said Dobbins, who indicated it may take 20 years to accomplish, with a project price tag of $50 to $80 million. “This will likely be a multi-national effort on the continent of Africa.”

At the conference, Dobbins presented a paper titled “Understanding Complex Metal Hydrides via Synchrotron X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy,” which also will be published in the journal Africa Physics Review.

She also represented on the Research Experience for Diversity and Inclusion program in a project called "SPARC – Synchronizing Partners to Advance Research Characterization" – funded by the Office of the President's Diversity and Inclusion office at Rowan University, which along with the College of Science & Mathematics also supported her attendance at the conference. SPARC is designed for Rowan students to help scientists from developing countries gain synchrotron and other supporting data through a mail-in sample program.

And, she represented the Lightsources for Africa, the Americas, Asia and Middle East Project (LAAAMP) created by Dr. Sekazi Mtingwa (TriSEED Consultants, LLC) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the International Union of Crystallographers and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. LAAAMP received a grant to fund student/faculty teams from Africa and other developing countries to visit synchrotrons around the world. 

All of this work by Dobbins is helping researchers in Africa to make the journey from laboratory research at their home institutions to novel findings using synchrotron X-ray sources.