For this blogpost, guest writer Dr. Jumana AlHaj Abed, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of pgEd director Ting Wu, gives a profile of Dr. Andrews Akwasi “Kwasi” Agbleke. Kwasi is a scientist who is also working towards addressing the disparity in access to resources for science research and education, particularly in his home country of Ghana, in West Africa. It is pgEd’s pleasure to feature Kwasi’s work, as pgEd strives to make science and scientists more relatable, and to bring more communities and voices into conversations about genetics.
Kwasi stands at the shipping office in New York City to make sure the paperwork is in order for all the lab equipment he is sending off to Ghana: fridges, freezers, incubators, centrifuges, even glassware. This is his seventh shipment within two and a half years. Every few months, he shops around for secondhand equipment, has them delivered to his home in Boston, MA, packages everything, and then drives the packages to New York City in a rental truck. Back in his hometown in Accra, Ghana, his mom and sisters receive these shipments, and then his younger brother drives them a few hours east to the Sena Institute of Technology (SIT), a non-profit institute Kwasi started almost three years ago.
Andrews Akwasi Agbleke (Kwasi) is a passionate scientist who is working to fulfill one of his dreams — making science more interactive and approachable. The idea for starting a research institute came to him in 2008 when he was studying biochemistry for his undergraduate degree in Ghana. At that time, he realized science education should be more dynamic and experiment-focused, especially in order to train future scientists. He later moved to the USA to do a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, after which he started to work as a postdoctoral research scientist in Nancy Kleckner’s lab at Harvard. Driven by his passion for science and curiosity about what he learned about the nucleus (the “command center” in the cell containing the genetic material), he decided to study the dynamics of DNA in living cells. He wants to understand how copies of DNA we inherit from our parents intermingle with each other in the nucleus.
As Kwasi made professional advances, he also wanted to make sure that what he discovers in the lab can be easily understood by other scientists as well as people who do not have advanced degrees in science. In his opinion, one of the biggest challenges in science is that scientific knowledge and research resources are not easily available to a majority of people around the world, especially in countries with limited funding for research and science education. This meant that his country, Ghana, which spends 0.38% of its GDP on research and development, is at a disadvantage compared to the USA, where the spending is 2.73%. This is an especially stark difference when considering that Ghana’s GDP per capita is $1,800 USD, compared to $48,000 in the USA. This disparity is what drove Kwasi to start SIT in Ghana, in the hopes of creating a research hub in West Africa that aims to facilitate cutting edge research while integrating Ghana’s culture, heritage and resources.
In Kwasi’s vision, scientific research has a major role to play in helping us “understand our surroundings — where the environment and culture are interconnected — and how the local resources in our environment are integral to promoting growth in our communities.” For now, he hopes to achieve SIT’s goals with a small team of ten people, while placing significant emphasis on getting a better understanding of Ghana’s local environment, crops and natural habitat, and integrating the local community’s knowledge of this environment. One of these projects involves using local resources in Ghana to make plates for growing microbes, rather than importing them from abroad. Another project involves collaborating with local doctors, farmers and community elders to characterize local plants and herbs that have been traditionally used for natural remedies, and screening them for chemical components that could be used for drug development in the future. Ultimately, Kwasi’s goal is to expand his team, train more scientists, and drive more people to invest and do research in Ghana as well as Africa, while collaborating with the community. The biggest challenge, up until now, is to make SIT sustainable by utilizing Ghana’s local resources efficiently.
Kwasi’s love for science also extends to wanting to bridge the gap between doing science and communicating science, such that cutting-edge research goes hand-in-hand with the dissemination of scientific knowledge and contributes to socioeconomic growth. In his opinion it is the “duty of scientists to share their discoveries with their communities.” For this reason, in 2018 he founded an organization called TrickleS, a social venture that aims to provide a platform for exchanging scientific knowledge among as many scientists as possible in the USA and around the world. The idea is for scientists to register on the platform, and then check in when they plan to travel to different states or countries. TrickleS then helps facilitate the scientists to give seminars at academic institutions at their travel destination. This gives scientists an opportunity to talk about their work more often, and hopefully to larger audiences. In addition, much like pgEd’s goal of making scientific knowledge more accessible, TrickleS’s eventual goal is to broaden the audience and facilitate talks about science that engage non-scientists as well.
As president of SIT and founder of TrickleS, Kwasi says this is only the beginning. His goal is to help promote a more universal scientific exchange as a way to mitigate the disparity in science funding within the USA and around the world. According to Kwasi, “although historically, science has been a more exclusive culture, we are on the right trend to incorporate more diverse voices into science.” He also believes that so much can be done to help scientists and their work become an everyday part of the community. That starts with scientists recognizing their roles in communicating their discoveries to their communities better, and furthermore in collaborating with underprivileged scientific communities around the world, in the hopes of minimizing the economic and information gap across the globe.
You can find more about TrickleS @ https://trickles.org/
Learn more about SIT @ https://sitghana.org/
**The percent of GDP spent on research and development, and GDP per capita for 2010 can be found here: http://www.worldbank.org/