10 Feb 2017

Trailblazing Vanuatu scientist Roger Malapa dies

1:15 pm on 10 February 2017

Dr Roger Malapa, the first ni-Vanuatu to graduate with a PhD in science who went on to become one of the Pacific's most distinguished agricultural scientists, died in New Caledonia this week after a battle with cancer. He was 46.

Dr Roger Malapa

Dr Roger Malapa Photo: Supplied/ Dr Vincent Lebot

Born and raised on Malekula, he grew up to study genetics in New Caledonia. It was while there, said Vincent Lebot - a Vanuatu-based scientist and long time friend, that academics noticed what he described as his "exceptional talent."

Dr Malapa then secured a scholarship to study a PhD at the University of Rennes in France.

"It was a huge cultural shock for him to leave New Caledonia to go to Europe - a cold Europe," said Dr Lebot in an interview. "The standards were very high, but Roger managed to keep with the pace and the workload and he spent four years there doing research on the genetic diversity of yams."

In May 2005, he defended his PhD and returned to Vanuatu as the first ni-Vanuatu to graduate with a PhD in science. "It was something unique at the time," said Dr Lebot. "He was someone truly exceptional."

Dr Malapa started a career with the country's national research institute on Santo where he became a plant breeder, generating new and more resilient varieties of the Pacific's traditional root crops. With his warm character and great sense of humour, he created hundreds of varieties which have spread throughout the Pacific, and with that, he gained a reputation for his willingness and ambition to spread his knowledge and expertise.

"What Roger has left behind is basically hundreds of new hybrids that were created and distributed throughout the islands of Vanuatu to the farmers, and these hybrids are now going to contribute to the adaptation to climatic change," Dr Lebot said.

Dr Malapa leaves behind a trove of scientific journal articles and research, as well hundreds of varieties of resilient crops. But Dr Lebot said Dr Malapa's trailblazing has left behind a much greater legacy for Vanuatu's future generations.

"The most important is the image that demonstrates and proves that although you can originate from the small island of Malekula, in a very small country like Vanuatu you can reach the highest degree in science and there is no reason why you would be limited by your origin," said Dr Lebot. "This is, I think, an outstanding example for the future generations. It's feasible. It's possible. And Roger has shown that."

"I think Roger succeeded to convince the younger generations that they should not be afraid of science," he said. "It's tough, it's hard, it's difficult, but it's very very rewarding."

"This is a huge loss for Vanuatu."

Dr Malapa is survived by his wife and four children.

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