Spotlight on… Paul Bangura
The SEB is a proudly international society, welcoming scientists from many different countries, cultures, and life histories. We speak with Paul Bangura, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland, as he shares his harrowing journey from abducted child soldier to fisheries biologist.
“I was born and raised in a small village in the northern part of Sierra Leonne called Madina,” begins Paul. “Life there wasn’t easy because the standard of living in the country is generally very low and I came from a poor home.” While many parents in the village wanted their children to join them working on the farm to grow food, Paul’s parents were very keen on him and his siblings receiving an education. “Even though they didn’t have the money to pay the fees, they encouraged us to raise the funds ourselves,” he adds. “We would help other families or harvest peanuts and rice to sell to nearby towns to get the money we needed.”
Although Paul counted himself lucky to be able to go to school, achieving an education was still fraught with challenges. Even shoes, something considered a basic necessity in much of the Western world, were regarded as a big luxury. “We would take large, leathery banana leaves and tie those around our feet so that we could manage the 2 km walk to school.” For Paul and his classmates, there were no meals during the school day, so their lunch breaks would consist of walks into the rainforest to find wild fruit before rushing back to avoid missing their classes.
Amidst all these challenges, the most calamitous period of Paul’s childhood was still to come. The Sierra Leone Civil War had been raging throughout the country from 1991, especially affecting the rural areas that were home to Paul and his family. “When I was in Junior Secondary School, we always had to run away deep into the jungle whenever we heard that the rebels were close,” he says. “It was like that for months until our parents decided we should move to the capital city of Freetown where it would be safer away from the fighting.”
When Paul was 15, only a few months after he arrived in Freetown, the Revolutionary United Front rebels attacked the city. While they were eventually pushed back by government forces, Paul was taken by the rebels as they retreated into the jungle. “They took a lot of young boys and girls to train them as child soldiers,” he says. “For about a year, I was given guns and trained as a child combatant. They would always use us like shields, putting us at the front, with them at the back, up against the West African forces using tanks and artillery.”
At one point during Paul’s year with the rebels, there was talk of a negotiation to release the children, but the rebels had no plans of doing any such thing. “My commander knew that the plan was to kill any children that said they wanted to leave, so he told me that if anyone asked, I should say that I wanted to stay,” he remembers. “They gathered together the hundreds of kids that said they wanted to leave and killed them all.” Word of this heinous massacre reached Paul’s family, who assumed that he had been murdered and arranged a funeral service in his absence.
Thankfully, Paul managed to escape the rebels and made his way back to Freetown where he was eventually reunited with his family and was able to recommence his schooling, but he acknowledges that most of the survivors were not as fortunate. “I would think that over 90% of the children that were taken as child soldiers ended up as dropouts from education,” he says. “All the trauma and all the stress that came from the war is unbearable for a lot of people to handle, so many of them ended up living on the street, in prison, or mixed up with drugs.”
Despite the catastrophic hardships that Paul had endured, he was hard set on continuing his education and had one goal in mind. “I was determined to become a medical doctor,” he says. “When I was young, I got sick, and I remember that a missionary took care of me, so I wanted to become a medical doctor so that I could also help people.” However, as Paul soon found, this goal was still out of reach for someone in his financial position. “I started doing a lot of odd jobs, but it was just not enough for medical school,” he explains. “The next option was to attend a university and study biology with the intention of finding a job to get money so that I afford medical school.”
It was during his undergraduate biology course at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, that Paul began to develop an interest in wildlife and the impact of the war on the plants and animals of his home country. “Throughout the war, we destroyed the wildlife,” he says matter-of-factly. “The rebels ate everything, destroyed the forest, and used all the natural resources. I thought that I could give something back by studying wildlife and seeing how much of it we could restore to Sierra Leone.” Despite his best intentions, he was under no illusion that this would be an easy area to find reliable work in. “As much as there is a need for it, it is often seen as ‘the white man’s job’,” he explains. “It was hard to find any wildlife jobs, but I knew that fish were a very important natural resource, so I deviated a bit towards the fisheries to help find myself a job.”
Following down the route of applied fish biology, Paul pursued double Master’s degrees in Fisheries Management and Conservation Biology from Nigeria and France, respectively, before ultimately landing a PhD position at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in Craig Primmer’s lab.1 The goal of Paul’s PhD is to investigate the genetic basis of behaviour and metabolic rate in order to improve aquaculture productivity and fish welfare. “Typically, fish in the wild have traits that make them competitive for survival, but some of these traits will not be useful for aquaculture,” he explains. “For example, aggressive behaviours might be useful in the wild for resource acquisition, but in aquaculture, aggressive behaviours put stress on the fish and use up a lot of energy that can’t be used for growth.”
“My studies are based on a particular gene, vgll3, which has been found to be partly responsible for the age at which Atlantic salmon mature,” says Paul. “We want to find out how this gene contributes to other mechanisms, including behaviour and physiology.” Previous research has shown that this gene has two alleles, responsible for early maturation and late maturation genotypes, with early maturating individuals growing larger than their late maturing counterparts at the juvenile stage.
Generally, aquaculture favours the late maturing genotype because earlier maturing salmon put more energy into sexual development than growth, which is less productive for the fisheries. Paul and his team predicted that these earlier maturing salmon would be more aggressive than the late maturing salmon because aggressiveness enables monopolisation of food. “However, we were surprised to find that the late maturation genotype was actually more aggressive than the early maturing salmon,” he reveals. “While the late maturing individuals are still currently preferred by aquaculture, we now know they are more aggressive and waste more of their energy, so there are still questions about which is the most optimal genotype for aquaculture.”
The long-term goal of Paul’s research is to investigate the possibilities of de-coupling these variable traits to improve the quality of aquaculture fish and provide the 700,000 people reliant on wild fishing in Sierra Leone with potential alternative sources of work. “In Sierra Leone, fish makes up 80% of our protein intake but we have no real knowledge of fish stocks,” says Paul. “My motivation for studying biology is to enable the sustainable production of food while conserving our vast nature, because poverty and food insecurity are very big problems in my country.”
Now, as a PhD student, Paul’s prospects of achieving a long-lasting and impactful career in biology are rising rapidly. “One of the proudest moments of my life was being admitted onto my PhD programme,” says Paul. “Of my family, of my whole lineage, I am the first to go to university and in my village, everybody knows my name.” In September 2021, Paul even presented his research at the World Fisheries Congress and is now awaiting publication of his first journal article. “My first manuscript is under review and will hopefully be published soon, then that will become my proudest moment!”
Looking back, Paul is eager to drive home just how difficult his journey from a childhood in Sierra Leone to his PhD position in Finland has been. “It is very challenging, but I know that it can be possible,” he says. “I kept applying to different programmes, finding myself in France for my Master’s degree and now here in Finland for my PhD. At each stage I’ve had to write a lot of applications to be able to fund my progression.” While Paul’s story is one of devastating tragedy and the challenges of overcoming trauma, it is also a reminder that hard work and determination aren’t enough alone to secure a future as a scientist. “If you come from Africa, the prospects of getting research grants can be very slim,” explains Paul. “The reason being is that funders ask for exceptional researchers, but they are difficult to produce when there are very few opportunities for funding and education there to begin with.”
1. Craig Primmer’s research group website. https://www2.helsinki.fi/en/researchgroups/evolution-conservation-and-genomics