Emmanuel S

Disaster mitigation is a collaborative effort


Name: Dr. Emmanuel Salifu

Website(s): Geotechnical Engineering Group at Arizona State University

Social media handles: Twitter @salifem

Please introduce yourself, where are you from?

I am from Inele-Imane in Kogi State, Central Nigeria.

Where did you go to school before ASU? What was your major and minor?

I obtained a Bachelor of Engineering in Agricultural and Environmental Engineering from the University of Agriculture Makurdi in Nigeria, following, I went to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow Scotland-UK for a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering, funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). 

I hold a dual PhD funded by the then Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) International Training Networks (H2020-MSCA-ITN) of the European Commission. I also studied at the University of Strathclyde in the UK and the University of Naples Federico II in IItaly. I tendered a single thesis and earned both a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering in Strathclyde UK and a PhD in Structural Engineering, Geotechnics, and Seismic Risk at Napoli Federico II, Italy. Afterward, I was a Postdoc at Strathclyde for almost two years before moving to ASU in 2021.

What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?

I realized that problems concerning environmental degradation or climate change mitigation are complex and often cannot be addressed through individual disciplinary lenses. They require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborative approaches to reach breakthroughs. In a world dominated by specialists, there is a need for technically sound generalists trained and equipped to coordinate collaborative efforts to create solutions. 

Coming from a background with interdisciplinary training and research experiences across agricultural, environmental and geotechnical engineering (among other self-directed soft skills), my perspective changed when I noticed that unlike most single-subject specialists, I see problems in multiple dimensions from different angles. That means I can better define a problem and delineate a scope of intervention. Since then, I have grown to appreciate my professional journey and actively seek opportunities to play to my strengths and be more effective.

How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspired you?

When I was seven years old, I witnessed a devastating flood event. Many lives were lost, infrastructure was damaged and it took a long time to come back up. The entire landscape and the lives of people in that region were impacted for a long time. I wanted to help in any way possible to prevent such occurrences and make life comfortable after such hazards. I wanted to be a medical doctor, lawyer, priest, politician, activist, engineer -  everything and anything! I wanted to become an interdisciplinary expert who could provide the silver bullet to end the suffering of my family and co-residents who were hit by the flood effects. With that initial spark of interest in problem solving, fate took its course and I have had a journey filled with renewed and refreshing inspirations.

What types of problems do you work on and what are the reasons for these problems?

Reasons for these problems range from social, economic, technological, and political or institutional factors. The global urban population is increasing as people migrate to cities to seek better livelihoods. This means there is an increased demand for fast and efficient infrastructure and services like housing, food, electricity, water supply, transportation, healthcare, security, etc. 

These issues place significant pressure on governments to ensure economic growth and on the construction industry and engineers to meet these ever-increasing demands. As witnessed during massive industrialization periods, in order to meet societal demands, there was minimal consideration for ‘sustainability’. Very little attention was paid to leaving the world healthy enough to meet the needs of future generations. We find an imbalance in the three pillars of sustainability which are economic growth, environmental protection, and social well-being. 

The consequences of these are the problems I mentioned before; nations, governments, and international organizations have set targets called sustainable development goals, to address these challenges. One of them is SDG 15 which is concerned with ensuring that life on land is sustainable. Efforts made in my research fall within this goal. However, the problems will not go away if the stakeholders do not cooperate to mobilize political will, technological advancement and financing,

What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field or higher education?

I would commend students interested in a problem-solving field like engineering - they have chosen a noble career path. There would be great challenges along the way to test their resolve - but they should always know that nothing good comes easy. One must develop a deep sense of self-motivation and have a community of support from mentors and peers. A PhD is a long-term commitment that comes with peculiar challenges beyond technicalities. I encourage students to seek out and make use of resources available to them.

Why is it important to network with your cohort?

My cohort are fellow travelers in terms of career level and we share mutual commitment to advancing diversity and equity and inclusion. An African proverb says: if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. I believe the people who put together the Presidential initiative had this in mind, and that is why they wanted us to come in as a cohort, work together and go far together. Networking with my cohort is invaluable and helpful in providing person-centered support by peers for peers who have similar backgrounds, share common lived experiences, want to achieve similar goals …and just “‘get it”.  

Congratulations on being named a Presidential Scholar -  what does this honor mean to you?

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be a Presidential Fellow and consider this a position of great responsibility. Reading through the thought processes and efforts that went into creating the initiative, I am glad to be part of the first cohorts. I am constantly thinking of ways to set a good standard for others and to contribute to fulfilling the objectives of the program including the support the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Are there any events, initiatives or funding opportunities at the Graduate College that you’re excited about?

I am always excited to get emails to learn about the many initiatives that the Grad College puts together to make our stay worthwhile. I particularly enjoy the postdoc Lunch and Learn events, and the conversation series for Presidential Scholars. There’s always such great community- building, information and support.  

What’re some of your long-term professional goals?

I want to become a full professor within the next decade to train future problem-solvers and contribute leadership at a global level, in sustainable development and economic transformation for low-income countries.