University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

School of Freshwater Sciences

From Malawi to Milwaukee

Ngochera calibrating the real-time CO2 measuring system before sampling on Lake Malawi. 
Leaving home to join an international research program is never easy. But for Maxon Ngochera, being accepted to the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences PhD program meant again leaving his wife and three daughters nearly 13,000 miles behind in the African country of Malawi. 

While Ngochera was able to occasionally visit his family while earning his Master’s at UW-Milwaukee, for the last year he relied mainly on video conferencing and other modern technology to keep in touch with them.

By the time he returned home to begin his PhD fieldwork on July 24, Ngochera was ready. “Being away from family and loved ones is the most difficult thing,” he says of his experience here. He had some help from his colleagues here to get acclimated. “Someone told me that if I have not tried Wisconsin cheese then I am missing out. So I tried it out and it is nice,” he says, but adds there are few foods in Wisconsin that compare to Malawi’s local cuisine.

One of several international students in the School of Freshwater Sciences, Ngochera was awarded a Fulbright Junior Development Program Scholarship in 2003 to study overseas and chose to join the research lab of SFS associate professor Harvey Bootsma. Bootsma conducts research in aquatic ecosystem dynamics in the Great Lakes of both North America and Africa, which appealed to Ngochera, whose country is bordered on the east by Lake Malawi, the world’s third-deepest freshwater lake. “I developed interest in his research and I started corresponding with him,” says Ngochera.

In the master’s program with the UW-Milwaukee Biology Department (while the School of Freshwater Sciences was still in development), Ngochera focused on zooplankton-phytoplankton interactions in large tropical lakes, with an emphasis on Lake Malawi. After his findings were published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research in 2011, Ngocherawas awarded a research grant by the International Foundation for Science to return to Lake Malawi to conduct fieldwork for his PhD through the School of Freshwater Sciences.

While Ngochera calls getting published a “very great achievement,” he values his research conducted in the field above accolades and awards. A sampling cruise on Lake Malawi still stands out for him, even after six years. The team was on the boat nearly every day for 21 days with very few opportunities to disembark. “I remember sometimes I would miss meals due to loss of appetite especially when the weather on the lake was terribly rough,” he says. 

Now that he’s back in Malawi, Ngochera’s research for his PhD includes examining whether large lakes can generate carbon dioxide and the role freshwater lakes may play in climate change. Bootsma’s lab conducts similar research on Lake Michigan and the collaboration between the two could have global implications in the field of large-lake carbon dynamics. Bootsma and Ngochera may also have a chance to reconnect in Africa because of Bootsma’s involvement with an ‘Atmospheric Deposition Network’ that has been initiated by University of Nairobi, Kenya. “Luckily Senga Bay is part of this network,” says Ngochera. “So I hope we will continue seeing him in Malawi.”

Ngochera will be seeing another familiar face from Milwaukee in Malawi. Fellow School of Freshwater Sciences student and Bootsma lab team member Emily Tyner was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research on Lake Malawi in 2013. “She will be based at our laboratory,” Ngochera says. “I am excited to have her in Malawi and look forward to working with her.”

After earning his PhD, Ngochera plans to continue working with the Malawi Fisheries Department, where he is currently an officer at the Senga Bay Fisheries Research Center. An organization within the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, the center is charged with water quality monitoring in the major lakes and rivers that serve as the main source of drinking water for Malawi’s population.

After years of sacrifice for his studies, Ngochera is ready to forge his future in his home country. “My dream is to one day become the Director of Fisheries Research in Malawi,” he says. “I think my future is very promising.”