First Motswana diamond research expert graduates from Faculty of Science

Theetso Motsamai receives his PhD in diamond research and exploration.

Katie Willis - 11 June 2019

Look at the palm of your hand, and picture a mandarin orange. Now, imagine a diamond of the same size. Unthinkable? Think again.

Two diamonds of this incredible size, each more than 1,000 carats, have been found in the Karowe mine in Botswana in the past four years-the latest in more than 50 years of diamond exploration since the discovery of diamonds in the country in 1967. Since that time, Botswana has gone from being an impoverished nation to the number one diamond-producing country in the world by value and one of the wealthiest nations in Africa.

During the last half century, the management and operation of diamond mines in Botswana has transitioned from foreign experts imported from countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom to indigenous Batswana leadership. But despite this, there are still no Batswana diamond research experts. Until now.

Home-grown expertise

Enter Theetso Motsamai, one of the latest PhD graduates from the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science.

Born in Kanye, a village in southern Botswana, Motsamai completed his bachelor's degree at the University of Botswana in 2001. Following this, he worked at the Botswana Geological Survey and completed a master's program at the University of Bangor in Wales. And in 2013, Motsamai joined the University of Alberta community as a PhD student studying under Thomas Stachel, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Canada Research Chair in diamonds, and Graham Pearson, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Henry Marshall Tory Chair, and Canada Excellence Research Chair Laureate.

"Like many Tswana children who grew up in a village, I was curious to see and feel diamonds," Motsamai explained. "For the past 50 years, my country relied extensively on revenue collected from diamond sales for its development, transforming Botswana from dusty roads to world-class infrastructure. I knew little about diamonds in terms of their formation and quality. So, I chose to come to University of Alberta specifically to learn how diamonds form, from the world's best known diamonds experts."

Now, a whirlwind six years later, Motsamai will receive his PhD in diamond research and exploration.

"I have always felt motivated by a desire to represent my country on the world stage, and being the first locally born diamond research expert makes me happy," said Motsamai. "I feel like shouting 'Yes! I made it.' I am committed to sharing my knowledge and developed skills with the young generation of geology students in Botswana."

"Until now, Botswana had no native expert on diamond research," added Stachel. "This is what UAlberta now delivers back to Botswana: a PhD-level expert in diamond research, trained to the highest international standards."

Building a diamond pipeline

During his time in the Faculty of Science, Motsamai examined diamonds from the Karowe mine, the operation responsible for producing some of the largest diamonds ever seen.

"Karowe has been a wonderful success story, recently producing some of the largest and most valuable diamonds ever mined," said Stachel. "Just search Constellation and Lesedi la Rona, and make sure you are seated."

Motsamai's research included detailed geochemical study into the origin of Karowe diamonds. He determined the exact source genesis of these diamonds. "As a highlight, Theetso established a strong likelihood that the very large diamonds produced at Karowe can be linked to super-deep diamonds that come from about 400 km depth-much deeper than the usual 150-200 km for most diamonds worldwide," added Stachel.

Motsamai's thesis was sponsored through a fellowship by the Botswana International University for Science and Technology (BIUST), a new national flagship university focused on developing young Batswana talent to reach a high level of expertise. Earlier this spring, Motsamai jointed BIUST as a new faculty member, where he shares his expertise in mineralogy, geochemistry, and diamonds with students.

The Faculty of Science is honoured to welcome Theetso Motsamai to our family of alumni. Congratulations, Theetso.