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Interview with Marian Asantewah Nkansah

Written by: John Morgan
Published on: 23 Mar 2021

Marian Asantewah Nkansah is associate professor of chemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana.

Marian Asantewah Nkansah is associate professor of chemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. She was one of five winners in the 2021 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, which recognise recipients’ research along with their commitment to leading and mentoring young scientists, as well as to improving quality of life in their communities. Her degrees include a PhD in environmental chemistry from the University of Bergen, while her work focuses on determining levels of pollutants such as heavy metals in the environment – which she has found in unexpected places such as spices, lipstick and classroom dust – and raising public awareness of risks.

When and where were you born?
Ghana, August 1979, to Joseph Nkansah and Mary Nkansah.

How has this shaped who you are?
Born to parents who are both educators, my siblings and I were surrounded by books and that inculcated in us an interest in reading, writing and learning very early. Growing up in a family of eight taught me the need for peaceful coexistence, free sharing of my gifts, caring for younger siblings and benefiting from the care of older siblings. Also growing up in the early 1980s, when Ghana experienced serious economic decline, I learned gratitude for what I have, judicious use of resources and the need to give back to society, especially the underserved. These tenets that I picked from my family’s value system have been part of me throughout my teen years up to today. I currently run a non-governmental organisation called the Gaudete Institute, which I co-founded with my two sisters, with key goals of lending a helping hand to the underserved, including educational guidance and counselling for the youth, skills training for unemployed women and support for the welfare of the aged.

What led you into studying environmental chemistry?
My curiosity led me to study science, but the choice to pursue environmental chemistry was based on the fact that it requires utilisation of aspects of all the branches of chemistry in solving environmental problems, encompassing everything around us and the living things in it.

Tell us about the implications your research has in highlighting the risks to the public from heavy metals.
I have had the privilege to share my research findings on radio, TV and print media [which] has helped improve the public understanding of these toxic substances and the potential harm [from exposure to them], be it in food, air, water, soil and so on.

What pleased you most about winning an OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award?
The fact that I won after my second attempt serves as encouragement to myself and others. I will say, “Don’t give up on your goals but keep trying until you win.”

You’ve taken on a role advocating for women in STEM in Ghana. What sort of work do you do here and why is this issue so important?
First and foremost I am a woman and second I am a STEM professional. Because of how demanding careers in science can be, there is a general trend of decline in retention of women in STEM, and also those who stay have challenges of thriving and making it to the top. The Women in STEM Ghana initiative that I am a member of is therefore to encourage young girls to aspire to pursue careers in STEM fields and also to offer a support system to STEM professionals for growth and excellence.

What sort of barriers have you faced as a woman in science, and how have you overcome them?
I haven’t directly faced any challenges particularly because I am a woman. But I have had my fair share of the challenges that every scientist faces: working extra hours to meet deadlines for teaching and research, [applying for] funding for research and writing up research findings for publication. But women generally have to combine societal obligations of caregiving and home-keeping together with professional expectations; and that means working twice as hard compared with male counterparts in most instances.

If you were Ghana’s education minister for a day, what policies would you introduce for universities?
I would facilitate the establishment of a Ghana national research fund, hosted and administered by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Science and devoid of all partisan political interference. This fund would be accessible to all faculty and researchers in institutions of higher learning, with a focus on identifying research innovation that utilises indigenous knowledge and resources to solve local problems. This would ensure [a focus on] solution-based and applied research to meet the needs of society. Also, I would set up an annual innovation festival for younger students in secondary, technical and vocational schools, where gifted students would showcase their business plans and prototype products [with a view to creating] start-ups. This would ensure that students who are practically oriented could build on their skills and emerge as entrepreneurs, and later be in a position to create jobs for others. This would relieve the burden on government to employ all graduates and reduce graduate unemployment.

Is there a book that changed the way you look at the world?
I will say the Holy Bible. I am a Roman Catholic and my Christian principles admonish me to love myself and my neighbour. This and other teachings in scripture are at the core of everything I do in terms of helping improve the lives of others and mine and care for nature.  

When are you happiest?
I feel like Christmas any time I am standing on a podium before a crowd either as part of a panel discussion or as an individual speaking about any of my causes, including motivational speaking, science communication, sharing my research findings, teaching young minds and advocacy for social justice.