An accomplished academic and a political super star among us

May 22, 2014

Visiting professor Beyene Petros specializes in immuno-parasitology and tropical public health. But he is also a political activist in his home country of Ethiopia.


Today you’ll find Beyene Petros in his GSU classroom as he takes a year’s sabbatical from his position as a biology and public health professor at Addis Ababa University. But there’s another role he’s stepped away from for a year: political activist and leader of the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party.

Both roles come with some danger. Forty-two of his fellow professors have been dismissed for their political views. As a three-time member of the Ethiopian Parliament and highly visible political activist he says, “I’m known to the Ethiopian population at large and the diplomatic community. That makes me too hot. If they imprison me, it makes their actions political.”

In the laboratory he also helps the world face down danger. His research focuses on malaria immunology and the neglected tropical diseases of the poor, on which he has extensive publications. But he says there are areas of his science that are also political. Polio is a good example. In countries like Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan there are factions convinced that immunization is really an attempt to sterilize the people rather than protect them from this debilitating disease. That slows down progress in eradicating the disease.

Beyene’s background is very different from what most of us in the U.S. can identify with. His life began in the village of Hamburse near Shone town where he herded cattle. “We had no potable water, no electricity,” he remembers.
But maybe more important in shaping Beyene’s future was the effect of the feudal land-holding system in Ethiopia had on him. That likely was the beginning of his passion for democracy and justice. “I just grew up in political activism,” he says. Then, while in high school, he met Americans who were in his country with the Peace Corps. He heard about living in the west from them: “We wanted a life like that!” Since then he’s been working to make that happen for Ethiopia.

Beyene’s family – two sons and two daughters, plus five grandchildren – live in Ethiopia and in the U.S. His roots in the U.S. also extend to his education and professional background. After receiving his bachelor of science from Haile Selassie I University in Ethiopia, he received his master of science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his doctor of science from Tulane. He has also held a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and was Fulbright Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

What’s in store for Beyene when he returns home this fall? “I have remained engaged with what is happening politically back home – it is my social contribution!”

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