Questions for Dr. Yonas Geda:
Physician, Scientist and Pioneer
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
You are a recipient
of the Mayo
Award for academic
activities and humanitarianism.
this fellowship entail
and what are some of
from working with
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/
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
are your role models? In what way have they pushed you to realize
your potential both as a medical researcher and as a humanitarian?
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
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
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
youth, bold and courageous
that had completely
transcended ethnic or other
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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
What advice would you give other
Ethiopians in the diaspora in pursuing
their own goals the way you have?
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
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
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.