At the invitation of the University of Ghana, CU-Boulder researchers strengthen Ghanaian grad students’ grasp of modern cell biology
Last month, Dick McIntosh, distinguished professor (emeritus), and Joy Power (’88 BIO), an alumna and lab coordinator, of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, traveled to the University of Ghana in Legon to participate in a two-week course on modern cell biology for biochemistry graduate students.
McIntosh and Power have taught the course in four African countries. He calls the courses modern cell-biology “boot camps” and says their end goal is the promotion of front-line research in Africa, which has no shortage of disease but a dearth of cutting-edge research on disease.
During the “boot camps,” McIntosh and Power gave lectures on science, technology and lab work. Additionally, they trained students in giving effective, professional research presentations and in the analytical reading of scientific literature, with particular emphasis on developing a critical point of view.
These two scientists have previously conducted such courses in Uganda, Tanzania, Mali and Ghana.
Depending on the needs of the host university, these courses focused on specific diseases, including malaria,trypanosomiasis, cancer and tuberculosis. The course last month focused on tuberculosis and malaria.
“Our goal was to expose all 30 of the students in Ghana’s new graduate program to the cellular bases of diseases, as well as the way scientists worldwide are studying them and trying to find new routes to better cures,” McIntosh says.
Prior to this trip, McIntosh had helped to organize and facilitate three similar courses at the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Ghana in Legon, each time working with a group of 25 students selected from more than 250 applicants from all over West Africa.
“It’s fulfilling to go there, where students really want to learn and are really curious,” says Power, who took a freshman biology course with McIntosh and has contributed to these teaching programs five times.
“[This] department really excelled in responding to the ways of teaching we were promoting,” McIntosh says.
Gordon Awandare, head of the department, asked McIntosh to return and provide the same training for first-year students in the university’s new graduate program in the cellular and molecular biology of infectious diseases.
African researchers cannot necessarily compete with work in the United States or the United Kingdom, where similar work can be done cheaper and faster. But Africans need to be involved with global research so they can help solve Africa’s problems.”
Awandare received a five-year, $4 million grant from the World Bank to establish this new graduate program. He is using some of the funds to bring McIntosh, Power and two other experienced teachers to Legon.
McIntosh had previously travelled to Uganda on a Fulbright grant to research a vaccine for trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness. During this research, he found that even though many universities throughout Africa had departments of biochemistry, they hadn’t integrated modern approaches into their bioscience curricula.
McIntosh concluded that teaching, rather than conducting research, might have a more positive effect on biology research in Africa. He won a Carnegie Grant in 2008 to set up a program to teach cell biology in African universities and to help align their curriculum with that of Western countries’ research universities.
Because the courses were volunteer-taught, “two weeks seemed the maximum possible time, so we tried to cram as much as possible into that time,” McIntosh says.
These courses included basic science lectures and “tool talks.” Past tool talks have included subjects such as the uses of a modern light microscope and the use of the Internet for the study of bioinformatics and literature-based research.
Another important part of the course was when students met to read and critique papers from scientific journals, honing their critical eye and skepticism.
“The principle of rote learning is common in African teaching,” McIntosh says. “This approach leads to the supposition that … the scientific literature is gospel, but the literature contains errors.”
Reading journals critically taught students to look for places that authors may have misinterpreted their data. Initially, students were resistant to this, but they soon began to enjoy it.
“For them, it was a completely new way of thinking, and very valuable,” McIntosh says.
Students also met with members of the course faculty to discuss their own research and develop a research presentation they could give at a professional meeting. On the last day of the course, all students presented their research.
McIntosh says these courses have had a positive impact: “We were able to teach students new things, and they picked up on new ideas. We got something across.”
Power agrees that the courses have been effective.
“[McIntosh] had a vision of what to do and he went ahead and did it. [The teaching of] modern cell biology in Ghana has skyrocketed. The program [that McIntosh] created [has helped to build] a local research infrastructure,” Power says.
McIntosh hopes these seminars will promote front-line research on infectious diseases in Africa.
“It’s important to identify the problems and strengths of the African scientific environment so [these researchers] will be able to do unique work of world-class quality.”
The tools of modern cell biology are vital for African scientists, because “the number of people [in Africa] having to deal with diseases is very large and the availability of experimental organisms [there] is very high,” McIntosh says.
For instance, Accra Hospital in Ghana sees higher numbers of patients with tuberculosis than a hospital in Denver, so it offers the opportunity to do very serious experimental work.
McIntosh does not deny the difficulties, setbacks and expenses in doing modern science in Africa. The lack of convenient and available lab supplies is one such difficulty.
But he believes African scientists equipped with the right tools “can do experiments that cannot be done anywhere else in the world.”
McIntosh hopes these courses will teach grad students to be “creative and courageous in their work and learn how to collaborate with first-world colleagues. African researchers cannot necessarily compete with work in the United States or the United Kingdom, where similar work can be done cheaper and faster. But Africans need to be involved with global research so they can help solve Africa’s problems.”
Lara Herrington Watson is a CU alumna (’11) and freelance writer who splits her time between Denver and Phoenix.