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Researcher of the Month: Dr. Ateya and His Love for Modeling Systems

“What one might see as a job well done; is just the start for a true professional.” Scientific Lore.


This is a quote cited in Chapter 5 of Dr. Ateya’s PhD research on Simulation and Modeling Techniques in Gravity Inversion Analysis. Proud to be associated with modeling of systems, Dr. Ateya’s face beams with excitement when he talks about it. He takes time to go into details of modeling systems and how different natural resources are discovered worldwide using the simulation and modeling techniques. His journey in the world of academics is admirable; he is passionate about Information Technology and specifically his area of specialization in modeling of large systems.


What is your Education Background?

I am a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Information Technology at Strathmore University. I have been lecturing for almost 8 years now in the University, teaching at undergraduate level in the Faculty and postgraduate level both at the Faculty and @ILabAfrica, which is a Research and Innovation Centre within the Faculty.


I completed my undergraduate studies in 1993 at the University of Nairobi where I specialized in Surveying in the Faculty of Engineering, an interest I developed while in Secondary School due to the myriad land problems rampant in the country side then and now. I thereafter worked for two years at Kenya Institute of Surveying and Mapping (KISM), before departing for Kyoto University, Japan for six years to undertake masters and PhD studies specifically in Applied Geophysics under the tutelage of Prof. Shuzo Takemoto.


Upon completing my PhD studies I returned home in 2003 and worked for almost one year at a Public University. I then realized the need for honing further my (software and system) modeling skills and decided to undertake another degree in Computer Science at University of Auckland, New Zealand for another 3 years. If one is to successfully carry out complex modellings, the extra degree was critical. However, even then, I did not know that my career path would be in teaching; I just knew I will do a lot of modelling of systems in the future because I loved it.


Why Japan?

While I was working at KISM, I was privileged to receive a full scholarship from the Japanese Government to study Applied Geophysics at Kyoto University. The interview was quite a rigorous process and required that one had to be conversant in Japanese language to sit for the written tests and oral presentation. It took me more than one year to learn and perfect my Japanese to qualify, and fortunately I did well and was among three students who got accepted to join the different universities in Japan in that year. 


What were your Research Findings?

My research interest in simulation and modelling in the broad geophysics aimed to answer questions such as: Can one determine quantitatively the depth-dependent density variations in a sub-surface horizontal layer or for a sub-surface structure? What are the possible height errors on the determination of density variations and the position of the contact surfaces in a horizontal layer? What are the height error limits for a given intermediate horizontal layer geophysical and/or geological interpretations? In a nutshell, it meant I could peek underneath while sitting in the laboratory.


In a practical day to day work, geophysicists collect data from aerial or ground locations, but somebody has to utilize algorithmic and modelling techniques to help understand what is underneath – be it oil, gas, water etc.  The inverse modelling techniques for each of these gives different signatures for the area – and with supplementary rock types information prospecting can be targeted. Creating models and modelling from the laboratory saves geophysicists’ time since they can focus on a particular area, instead of drilling without focus.


In as much as gaining expertise in the field is slightly expensive – mostly in data acquisition/collection, it is a good opportunity for the country in assisting the discovery of minerals and other underground resources. In Kenya, we have gaps in this area of specialization though there are one or two universities offering courses in this at master’s level. It is however clear that parastatals such as Geothermal Development Company and Oil prospecting companies use and need this kind of expertise on a continuous basis.


Any challenges or benefits of undertaking this Research?

The toughest part of the research was the number of hours I had to put in. My supervisor’s advice was that I should own my work. This meant that I had to commit 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday for research for a few years.


The brighter side of this, in hindsight, is that I became a better thinker. Studying at Kyoto University was beneficial; the library always the latest global journals and materials that could be accessed at any time. I am also grateful to the fact that prior to studying at Kyoto, I had worked with some Japanese nationals while at KISM and therefore I got to understand their culture, which made my learning environment in Japan easier to adapt.



My greatest achievement would be the ability to convert complex issues into simple model solutions – a boundary spanner. This is why I am currently doing a research work on modelling systems for health and hospitality sectors; which almost every individual, if not students can easily relate with. My interest in hospitality sector stems from my desire to solidify my practical industry examples for the sake of my students and enriching their learning experiences, while for the health sector, I have Masters and PhD students with keen interest in modelling health systems. My desire would be to see the IT department (for both staff and students) develop systems that create a simpler solution for the day-to-day wider public usage.


I take pride in seeing many of my students excelling in modeling systems at their places of work, when they succeed, I cannot help but feel I have succeeded too. I have the passion to transmit my vast knowledge to as many students as I can. It is important to note that through modeling systems that can be translated to many different spheres, one realizes what works and then builds on it. As one of the eminent inventors and innovators of our times, the late Steve Jobs succinctly put it, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust your gut or destiny or something. This approach has never let me down and it has made all the difference in my life”. This holds some truth for the lecturer, the student or the researcher all alike when trying to innovate in any sphere.


What advise would you give aspiring PhD students?

It is to the advantage of anyone in academia to undertake PhD studies. It refines ones thinking when they have a problem to solve – and sometimes with limited time. For one to successfully complete, one has to be systematic, plan carefully and execute – however unrefined the plan might be. For anyone feeling scared, nothing is comes easy, one must put in the necessary effort in any sphere of life, work and even the family, so my advice would be – just start.  As Jeffrey Fox puts in in his bestseller book, ‘How to Become a CEO’, “Every great and successful athlete remembers the endless hours of seemingly unrewarded toil and so do corporate presidents”


What do you do with your spare time?

I enjoy watching basketball. My favorite team used to be Chicago Bulls but nowadays I just follow different players e.g. Kobe Bryant as they play at the playoffs, they are most enchanting. In my youth, I played lots of basketball, and I do remember with nostalgia when the 3-pointer was officially introduced into basketball set of rules in 1983. I was playing as a forward in my school team at the time. I also enjoy watching action movies, a habit I picked up while in Japan, given that I was living away from my home country for the six years.


I am married and am a father of three daughters; one of my daughters recently graduated from Strathmore University.