Questions for Dr. Yonas Geda: Physician, Scientist and Pioneer
by Tseday Alehegn

Dr. Yonas Geda was awarded the 2003 IPA Research Award at the Eleventh International Congress of the International Psychogeriatric Association (IPA) held in Chicago on August 17th – 22nd 2003. The IPA recognized Dr. Geda’s exceptional contributions to the field of Psychogeriatrics and, in particular, to research on Pre-Alzheimer’s state. Dr. Geda won third place for his research entitled “DeNovo Genesis of Neuropsychiatric Symptoms in Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI),” and became the first African to receive an award. Tadias Magazine had the opportunity to interview Dr. Geda shortly after he received this prestigious award.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

As a child growing up in Sidamo, my ambition was to become a bus driver. I had no intention of becoming a medical doctor. Even after I joined medical school, I almost dropped out in my second year. To tell you my background briefly, I was born in Dilla, Sidamo, and grew up in Yirgacheffe and Hagere Mariam. In 1973 I joined the General Wingate Secondary School. My elementary school teachers in Yirgacheffe were outstanding. In Wingate, one of my favorite teachers was Mr. Cullen, who used to teach history. I had broad interest in both social sciences and languages. At one point in my life, I decided to conquer mathematics, which had never been my strength. So I started from 7th grade Math all the way to 12 grade Math. A former Wingate student, Tesfaye, and a mathematician named Woldezgi Batha helped me achieve my goal of understanding mathematics. I did apply the same effort in the area of biology and chemistry, then one thing led to the other and finally I decided to go to medical school. I have to note that my generation was enthusiastic in bringing about change in Ethiopia.

You are a recipient of the Mayo Brothers Distinguished Fellowship Award for academic activities and humanitarianism. What did this fellowship entail and what are some of your accomplishments from working with this fellowship?

The Mayo Brothers Distinguished Fellowship Award is the highest honor that the institution bestows upon a resident or fellow. In 1998, I was one of the six residents out of over 1000 to receive this award. I am quite honored to receive this award. To begin with, Mayo trains the best physicians of the US; and to be selected for this award was quite a moral boost and affirmation. The ancient Greek philosophers are indeed accurate in pointing out that pursuing wisdom and knowledge as an end in itself is the way to go.

More recently, the International Psychogeriatric Association has awarded you for your research on Pre- Alzheimer’s state. It is the first time an African has won such a prestigious award. What is your overall reaction?

Well, I did not have the plan to win it, but I told myself, “Let me try it and I will see what happens next.” Some people thought I was being unduly ambitious to compete; that is their view. They are entitled to it. But my view was to try it and I did. I failed the 2001 competition on my research on a disease called corticobasal degeneration. But in 2003, I competed again. The reviewers look only at the scientific paper (blind peer review system); they have no idea what your name is or which continent you come from.

What is your main area of focus in medical research and how did you first get involved in this field? What are the types of projects you are initiating and/ or supporting?

" My research interest is in the area of neurodegenerative disorders and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. I am particularly interested in the development of early prediction model. By virtue of my training in both psychiatry and neurology, I am particularly interested in neuropsychiatric characterization of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Following characterization of MCI, the next step is to launch an interventional study targeting signs and symptoms.

To clarify this let us look at the historical genesis of the research in MCI. Professor Petersen and his colleagues of Mayo clinic have been studying aging and dementia in the community of Rochester, Minnesota, since 1986. They noted a group of persons who are older than 70 that are neither demented nor completely normal when it comes to memory functions. These individuals also show loss of brain tissue in some parts of the brain when studied by using MRI of the head. These individuals are not ‘worried well,’ i.e. some people become unduly preoccupied about perceived memory loss yet they are normal when tested. The ‘worried well’ is different from someone with MCI. There are various clinical trials being conducted to treat MCI. The result will be available in a few years. The ideal interventions would be health promotion and primary prevention strategies such as the time honored health styles of exercise, balanced life style, eating and drinking in moderation. Some accurately say that “what is good for your heart is good for your brain.” So self discipline and restraint of avoiding overindulgence in “Kitfo,” “Tire Siga” and “Whiskey” will not only prevent sudden cardiac death and the likes but could also be beneficial to the brain by preventing stroke, stroke related dementia and the likes.

Prior to working at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota you worked as a medical doctor in Ethiopia. What was your main area of focus at that time?

From 1991 to 1993 I was a General Practitioner working in the Armed Forces General Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I mainly worked in the Neuropsychiatry unit there. I treated soldiers with mortar/ bullet injury to the head and various armed conflict related traumas. At that time the war had just ended and a new government was established. Hence my patients were from both sides of the warring factions. I do recall that the soldiers who used to shoot at one another in the war front were helping one another. It was truly educational that we are all fellow human beings in the final analysis.

Who are your role models? In what way have they pushed you to realize your potential both as a medical researcher and as a humanitarian?

I really do not have one particular role model. Rather I cherish such qualities as diligent hard work, flexibility, the pursuit and appreciation of knowledge as an end in itself, humility (not self deprecation), love and forgiveness. Whoever has such qualities impresses me.

My wife Tigist (Titi), my children Ezra and Abigail, and my parents and siblings have a special place in my heart. My father is a self-made reader who ascended from “Telalaki to Woreda Gezi/ Governor, then Awraja Wana Tsehafi” in the government of Emperor Haile Selassie. My mother is well-known for her wit, sense of humor and exceptional kindness. However, she was not at all as driven as my father. When I moved from Sidamo to Addis Ababa, I lived with my aunt. Her husband, Girma Yilma, is perhaps the most voracious reader I ever met in my life.

As a teenager, I was an enthusiastic participant of the idealist youth movement of the late 70s. Of course now I understand about the altruism of youthhood. It was a remarkably dynamic youth, bold and courageous that had completely transcended ethnic or other divisions: Amharas, Eritreans, Oromos, Gurages, Tigrayans etc. well unified advocating for the most idealistic changes in Ethiopia. That truly was a heroic generation.

When I was in medical school, I was impressed by the witty and systematic approach of Professor Nebiat Tafarri. The energy and dedication of Dr. Yigeremu Abebe of the Armed Forces Hospital has little parallels. When I was doing my internship in Internal Medicine in the U.S., I could not come across an Internist as thorough and widely read as Yigeremu Abebe.

During my psychiatry training at Mayo clinic, I was impressed by Dr Richardson, Dr McAlpine and Dr Tinsley to mention a few. During my neurology fellowship, I was impressed by Professor Petersen and Dr Boeve and their colleagues.

My mentor Professor Petersen always works hard. He is also an avid golf player, a sport which I have not learned yet. His humility and open-minded approach is amazing. He is the director of the Mayo Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. He tolerates opinion differences, and sets a great example in being openminded and tolerant of opinion differences, which is the fact of life in research and I believe in many things in life.

Where do you want to take yourself next as a medical researcher? What goals have you established for yourself?

My goal is to investigate the various parts of the brain such as frontal lobe and amygdala, and their contribution to the genesis of neuropsychiatric symptoms in MCI. My immediate goal is to win a 5- year research grant from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) of the US government. My protocol was reviewed by distinguished panel of scientists and it was scored in the fundable range. Hopefully, the grant will come in 2004.

Do you have close ties with the Ethiopian-American community in your area? If so, what are some of goals you would like to see achieved as a community in the near future?

There are a few Ethiopians here in Rochester, Minnesota. So far everyone seems to be busy with his/her own life. One encouraging recent development is that new immigrants from Ethiopia (DV lottery recipients) have taken the initiative of organizing an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church about three months ago. This will certainly pave the way for community gathering. Since my kids are very young, I spend whatever spare time I have with my family.

What advice would you like to give to other future medical researchers both here and in Ethiopia?

Research is not the area of “special people with special talent.” It is open to anyone who wants to read about a certain topic, then generate a hypothesis based on existing literature, and then plan a design to test the hypothesis. This process itself is enjoyable regardless of the end result of the research. Medical research will eventually benefit all Ethiopians. Think of the young, the old, the poor, the rich, the diverse ethnic group etc. who will one day benefit from your work. It is a true motivating factor. In the process, you will advance your career as well. So pursue knowledge and wisdom as an end in itself, then everything else will take care of itself.

What advice would you give other Ethiopians in the diaspora in pursuing their own goals the way you have?

Happiness comes by working with discipline and program. If you want to be a writer then write 30 minutes every day. Try it for one month and see how it feels. Do not get excessively preoccupied by the social problems of the host country such as race relations. The native people are best suited to address their social problems. Appreciate every opportunity you have and wholeheartedly and completely focus on clear-cut long-term, short-term and immediate goals in the area of career, family, leisure activities, etc. Always think of the social and economic problems of Ethiopia; and do your part e.g. send money to family on a regular basis. Do not allow yourself to be too ambitious. Be practical and start by helping your family at home. Then your neighbor, etc.

What do you love to do in your spare time?

Being with my family. Reading, thinking and writing. I do regular physical exercise three to four times per week. Sometimes, I literally force myself to go to the gym to exercise, but I keep doing it. I stop doing it for three weeks at times, but I still go back. I enjoy the sense of health and energy that comes from regular exercise.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Ethiopia has lost its brightest during the 1970s due to conflict. I have personally met a few of them such as Tito Hiruy, Alemayehu Yeigzeru, Bayu Seyum, etc. The best way to remember them is by preventing such tragedy from happening again in our country. In my humble opinion, we should make a deliberate effort to avoid excessive hostility and intolerance no matter what a person’s philosophic outlook is about this world. Here in Minnesota, sometimes, it hurts me to see some people saying “I am not Ethiopian,” but I also work hard and make a deliberate effort to tolerate them as they are entitled to their view. Likewise, I am also entitled to my view of seeing a prosperous and happy Ethiopia. We will one day live up to our potential, so let us keep working hard in our respective areas of interest. Let each individual take responsibility for her/his action and minimize blaming one another. Blaming this or that person or group seems the fashion of the day. All too common I have witnessed persons coming up with a laundry list of excuses. We do not need that type of behavior. We all are fallible human beings engaging in good, bad and neutral behaviors, so let us try our best to minimize self-defeating behaviors, and aim for self helping behaviors as some thinkers say. I applaud all those who do not sit and wait until the solution to poverty miraculously materializes. I applaud those who implement and apply their humble goal instead of waiting until they craft the perfect goal and apply it in a perfect set of circumstances.

Finally, my love and greetings to all Ethiopians in every walk of life.


Dr. Yonas Geda

2003 Award Recipients

More Diaspora Articles

U.S.-Ethio Relations Conference