Visualizing a Dream: John Bikoba

John Bikoba
John Bikoba

John Bikoba, M.S., Earth and Planetary Sciences, '15

John Bikoba's path to UC Davis began in a country torn by violence.

Bikoba (M.S., Geophysics, '15) came to Davis in 2007 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DR Congo's rich mineral deposits helped fund the five-year-long Second Congo War, which ended in 2003. The fighting claimed more than 5.4 million lives.

Goal is to help homeland beset by conflict

As the youngest of 11 brothers and sisters, Bikoba mined gold to pay his school fees. His father was laid off from work and couldn't afford to send him to high school. Each week, after school, Bikoba pounded rock into sand by hand, grinding and washing the grains to extract precious metals. This was before conflicts over the rights to gold and rare earth metals fueled war in the DR Congo.

Conflict minerals in the DR Congo are tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold mined by armed groups, transported to neighboring countries and sold to manufacturers around the world. As an undergraduate student in the Congo, Bikoba wrote a senior thesis centered on conflict minerals in his native country.

“I never knew that these minerals that helped me satisfy my daily needs would become a nightmare for the Congolese people, especially those living in Kivu provinces where I am from,” Bikoba said. The experience cemented his decision to earn a doctorate in geology and work in exploration geology. 

Although he expects to make his career in this country, Bikoba said he also hopes to help Congolese people sever the link between the country's mineral resources and its militias. Because he struggled to pursue an education amid warfare in the eastern Congo, Bikoba also dreams of helping others earn their degrees. 

"The guys I worked with in the mine didn't even know these were conflict minerals. The country is struggling because of its own resources," he said. "It's not safe to go back permanently, but I feel like there are so many ways I could help," he said.  

Bikoba finished his master's degree this fall under the guidance of Professor Magali Billen, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He examined the mechanics of deep earthquakes using the KeckCAVES, a state-of-the-art 3-D visualization facility for analyzing complex earth science data. His experience at Davis was vastly different from his undergraduate studies, where computers were only available in slow-connection Internet cafés requiring payments for access.

"He has ended up with a strong, observationally-based geophysics master’s thesis for which he  has had to overcome never before having access to use a computer," Billen said. "His work has inspired new dynamical models that I am now putting together." 

Bikoba credits Professor Billen for helping him learn to focus when his thoughts were scattered across four languages—Swahili, Mashi, French and English. 

"Here at UC Davis, people have been so helpful during my path, especially Dr. Billen. She was there anytime I needed help, even outside of scholastics. Her directions and patience will remain unforgettable," he said. 

Bikoba earned his undergraduate geology degree at the Université Officielle de Bukavu. After graduation, he was employed by Banro Corporation, a Canadian gold mining company based in the eastern DR Congo. Working with an English speaking company, Bikoba found it necessary to learn English. With the help of his sister, a UC Davis research associate, he enrolled in a 10-week intensive English program at UC Davis Extension's Center for International Education.

Bikoba stayed in Davis to pursue a master's degree. It took four years to transfer Bikoba's transcripts from Bukavu to UC Davis, but he persevered and was accepted as a master's student in 2013 in the Department of Earth and Physical Sciences. In the meantime, Bikoba worked at campus dining services, got married, had his first daughter and is expecting a second child in March 2016. 

Davis has become a second home for the Bikobas. Bikoba's sister, Véronique, works in the Department of Plant Sciences. Véronique’s husband Thomas is a UC Davis alumnus with a doctoral degree in mathematics ('97) and her daughter, Flora, a UC Davis alumna, is finishing a doctorate in chemical biology at UC San Francisco. His older brother, Vincent, also moved to Davis in 2002. 

"This school is part of our family," Bikoba said. 

— Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science