If you had to explain your research topic to your grandmother or your little sister, how would you do it?
I am trying to find new ways to treat infections that cannot be treated in clinics at the moment. Tuberculosis for example; there are patients who cannot be treated, because they no longer respond to the usual medicine. So it is my duty to find new ways of treatment.
And how do you find those new ways?
In Ghana we are looking at fungi. They grow on the trees and some are in the air. And the idea is that in our environment there are many and diverse fungi. If you grow them in the lab, they produce substances. That’s how the first antibiotic was discovered. And I think we are in a good position to discover new ones that are more effective.
You studied in Germany for your PhD and you say that you find the German system very inspiring. Some people might find it limiting rather than inspiring – so what is it that makes it inspiring for you?
You never see rubbish on the streets, no animals running wild, no people on the streets who are mentally ill. That’s opposite to what I find in Ghana. Things are not very well organized. Even in institutions where people get paid to organize, things are left to run themselves. So you can have a building that leaks and nobody takes care of it for years, whereas in Germany when something is not working well, somebody will fix it. When things go wrong, Germans look for the person responsible for it. Even if it’s nobody’s fault, people feel really bad about it. This is it. What I find inspiring is that it is always somebody’s idea: Somebody sees it and says I don’t want to see it like this, I will do something about it. In Ghana, even if you have decided “This is what I can do to improve something”, many people don’t see the need.
You’ve mentioned that Ghana could learn a lot from Germany. Are there also things that German scientists could learn from Ghana?
I think experiments and research can be a series of accidents. And if you are in an environment where too much care is taken, that ends it. Sometimes you can’t differentiate between creative mistakes and just sloppiness. In my environment, people are just too sloppy. And I try to see some good in it. Looking at something that came out of a wrong experimental setup – and then making something of it, can be a way to conduct research. Because if you really knew everything about what you are doing, it wouldn’t be research.
Which is the most important advice you give to your students?
Tenacity. That’s what is clear in Germany, people don’t play around with their work. It’s a clear choice: When it is time to work, then it is time to work. There is nothing like “I have a little headache” – no, no. And I also tell my students about preparation, preparation, preparation. Everything we like to do, we start like two or three weeks in advance – that way we are more efficient. These are the requirements for creativity and brilliance to lead to something.
You’ve written that you would like to build a critical mass of scientists to make progress – how would you like to do this?
The research culture, this enthusiastic, ambitious attitude to research or working in a lab is not there yet in Ghana. That is why I want to find an institution where I can have German exchange students for a summer school. They can do something that is important for their degree and socialize with our students. And year after year that will impact. We have to find ways to generate solutions to our many, many problems in Ghana: No secure water supply, same for electricity, and many untreatable diseases that are still unknown to the Western pharmaceutical companies. And every one of these problems needs a solution. Yet we haven’t found those solutions, but this is our chance. Everything is on the plate for scientists and engineers. But our work does not only take place in the lab – it’s not just that we conceive an idea, work on it and that’s it. We also have to engage in social organisations and to some extent in business development. There aren’t enough people who know how to take ideas and transform them into reality. So we, who know the value of knowledge and ideas, have to take the initiative. There are so many Ghanaians who have studied abroad and go back to Ghana and keep the cycle of progress going. But so far there are too few of us compared to the scale of issues that confront our country.
How would you draw the place where you have the best ideas?