Irina Springuel: A Russian botanist in Egypt

From the Leningrad State University in the former USSR to the Aswan South Valley University, well-respected Russian botanist and ecologist Irina Springuel has had an unusual path in life.
Today, as an older scientist who works for the UN World Food Programme as a desert botany expert, she looks back on her long career to her childhood in the Soviet Union – a time where her acute interest in plants became vivid. 
“In the Soviet Union, children could join different state facilities that offered activities for free, depending on the children’s center of interest," Springuel said.
Enthralled by plants and their growing process, at the age of 10, Springuel joined the young naturalist center that was located within walking distance from her house. There, the center gave her a patch of land that she was in charge of nurturing herself. The children from this botany center also went on trip to the Museum of Natural History in Moscow and were given small lectures on botany. 
“When I became older, I still went to the center but was in charge of teaching the young kids the techniques of botany,” she remembers with a smile.
It is during her undergraduate studies in science at the Leningrad State University that she met her late husband, Egyptian physician Ahmed Belal, who was studying at the same university as part of a higher education exchange program between the USSR and Egypt in the '60s. 
“My husband was part of one of the first waves of Egyptian students who came to Russia, and this is how we met,” she said.
After Springuel married Belal, they left Russia for the South Valley University of Assiut in 1971. 
“Of course the transition between these two universes was slightly abrupt, especially because I only spoke Russian at the time,” Springuel said. 
So alongside her Master's studies in Assiut, she enrolled in language classes to learn English.
Five years later, Springuel’s husband was appointed dean of the faculty of science in the Aswan branch of the South Valley University, and she followed him to pursue her PhD, although the only thing that existed of the botany department at the time was the facility. 
“There were no professors, no staff at all to run this department,” she explains.
For her PhD field study, she found a supervisor from Cairo University and decided to study the first cataract island in Aswan, which had interesting vegetation that had never been studied before. After the construction of the high dam, the level of water decreased and became constant, which encouraged some people to cut trees, to cultivate or to develop buildings on these islands. 
To prevent the rapid destruction of these unique biospheres and the ancient forest that covered one of the islands, Springuel launched a battle to turn the Salluga and Ghazal islands into conservation areas, which she succeeded in doing in 1986 and 1989 respectively.
At the time, she was the only permanent staff member in the botany department at the Aswan branch of the university, and all the others lecturers were visiting professors from outside who came once or twice a month. This department was not the most seeked by science students either – they did not consider field work and botany as a science. 
“To them, it was only when a laboratory was involved that it became serious science,” Springuel explains with a laugh.
Over the years, her students became professors, and the botany department gradually expended, while her husband and her provided the university with a small scientific library for students. 
“Without Internet and much scientific reviews and books, scientists were marginalized, and my husband and I often travelled to Cairo just to roam the capital’s university libraries,” she remembers.
In 1989, Irina managed to turn the southeastern desert of Wadi Allaqi, located 180 km south of Aswan on the east side of Lake Nasser, into a protected area under the UNESCO’s “Man and Biosphere” label. 
“This area was geologically elevated and because of the creation of the Lake Nasser, it had been flooded, and after the water had seeped in the sand, wonderful vegetation grew and turned into a wild forest,” she explains.
She took her students to Wadi Allaqi for field trips to study the effect of the creation of Lake Nasser on the local vegetation, mainly composed by high tamarix shrubs. In 1993, she set up the Wadi Allaqi biosphere reserve with funding from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the first scientific station for wildlife and botany in the area. It consisted of a Nubian-style house with a tree growing in the central patio, surrounded by a farm. 
In 2003, she decided to fetch some of the trees that were submerged around the scientific station and bring them back to the University in Aswan. This is how Egypt’s first “desert garden” was born, as storage for genetic diversity.
Today, about 30 to 40 species of trees are growing ex-situ in this garden, some of which have almost altogether disappeared from the wild. They include the Argun Palm tree, also called Medemia, which is almost extinct in the wild, different species of acacias (some very rare) that are precious to Bedouins who turn them into fodder or charcoal, and the “halfa” medicinal grass that is used to treat kidney problems. 
“This grass is extinct in-situ today, so Egypt buys large quantities of this grass in Sudan, where it still grows very well,” she explains.
Apart from preserving Egypt’s diverse desert resources, she also envisions another fate for the trees and plants that grow in the university’s garden. 
“I think that instead of planting introduced plants around the temples and archeological sites, we should plant the vegetation that was originally present at the time of the pharaohs, which grow in our desert garden,” she says. Also, she has been contacted by hotel managers on the Red Sea and by the governor of Aswan who seek to plant species that use little water and resist strong heat well.
After spending 30 years in Aswan, Irina settled in Cairo about three years ago and now works as an expert of desert botany for the World Food Programme, which is launching pilot agricultural projects on the shores of Lake Nasser. 
“They use my experience in botany and my field knowledge of Lake Nasser to determine which plants can resist climate change and grow well in these areas,” she says.

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