I’ve been curating a collection of interviews of people I admire, people I believe would inspire our young students to think and dream daringly. Neuroscientist, Thomas Tagoe, is one of these people.
Thomas co-founded GhScientific with a mission “to promote good science through open dialogue, knowledge sharing and transfer, support other scientific organizations, unify scientists, train students and professionals, educate and engage the general public with science.” Back then, by his own admission, didn’t quite know what he was getting into, but today he is leaving a legacy of innovators and scientists in Ghana who are going to be change makers not only in the country but around the world.
We met in my office in Accra to chat.
EB: Tell me the back story of Thomas Tagoe and GhScientific.
TT: My backstory, I’m not sure how far back to go. In 2014, I got my PhD at the University of Leicester in England. I wanted a break from studies. I had blitzed through academia and I was tired. I told my dad I wanted to work on a farm, be in Ghana or volunteer for some time. I was realizing then that I had been very privileged with my education and that many young people had not had the opportunities that I had. So, I started realizing that access to opportunity was a big challenge for many people. I realized there was not really a space where people could think and talk about science. Now my sister had been doing a lot of science communication work in the UK and she suggested we could create a similar space in Ghana. A place to share, promote and build science capacity. That’s how GhScientific was born.
GhScientific is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) based organisation with a primary focus of building capacity through public engagement and outreach activities. We serve as the voice of the scientific community in Ghana, keeping the public informed about all our scientific happenings. We aim to unify scientists at all levels in their career to work together towards the advancement of STEM in Ghana and education of the public.
EB: Tell me about the journey, surely it hasn’t been easy.
TT: No it hasn’t. We started off over-ambitious. We didn’t have the bandwidth to keep up, but thankfully we got the support. We started off with a big series of projects and things that could be done and over time we focused our work. So, it hasn’t been easy because of bandwidth and finding enough support and then financing. Most of the financing is personal or through grants from external sources.
EB: What is the vision? What does success look like?
TT: The vision is to have the research center for excellence, for science and have a space where people can come and explore science so that at the end of the day people are talking about science. I want to inspire our young people to take up STEM careers, to educate the public on the work of scientist and its role in development, to support the work of STEM professionals and to promote the progress of STEM. GhScientific wants everyone to talk about the capacity of Ghanaians in the area of science whether it’s just the research they are doing, the work they are doing but really just building the capacity of Ghanaians in the sciences. That’s what success looks like.
EB: As you know Ghana recently launched a satellite. What did that mean for you?
TT: It was good, but then it didn’t get much attention. Within the science circles everyone knew, everyone was happy, but in the general media there was nothing. On the one hand, we did this great thing but then it also brought to light how much the general population didn’t know or care.
EB: Do you think its “care”; that people don’t care?
TT: Well, if they cared, the media would have made sure they heard about it. So if the media didn’t prioritize it they must think the people didn’t care. They feed what they think the people want to hear.
EB: The media isn’t always right, though, as a proxy of the people’s interest. Tell me about the work of GH Scientific. What do you do? What do you aspire to do? What do you want to do more of?
TT: The work of GH Scientific is in four areas: We offer education to keep our followers informed in the areas of STEM by providing educational STEM resources and programs for the benefit of students and the general public. We offer professional development by offering training to students and professionals to promote career development. We do public engagement by engaging scientists with the public to help the general public better understand the role of science in development and then we offer networking opportunities by organising events within the scientific community to open dialogue, share and transfer knowledge.
Day to day, we apply for grants and plan for projects. We work mostly through volunteers. Frankly, we have more volunteers, not really staff helping, looking through the news for relevant science conversations for us to share our thoughts, researching grants, building relationships with schools. At the end of the day students are where we want to build capacity. If you can’t reach them what’s the point?
EB: Do you find that easy or difficult, accessing the schools?
TT: It’s become more difficult, just in terms of bureaucracy. You need approvals at national level, school level, district level. We meet teachers who are excited and allow us to go ahead with the work while they go sort out the bureaucracy but there are others who add to the bureaucracy so it makes it difficult.
EB: You are very well educated, you are capable of doing anything with y0ur first class education but you choose to come back and do this. What did your parents think about this? Were they supportive? The parental aspect is so important. Then secondly, why is this important to you?
TT: I’d like to think my parents are forward thinking. My mom sat me down, asked me questions and discussed options. Her parenting approach was so long as she understood that you understood your decision then she was highly supportive. They say that people who are innovators should have something to fall back on? I fall in that category. I can always go back to research.
On why this is important to me, I could have stayed in London doing research and gone on with my life, but then the impact of my research there would have been marginal, at best. Whereas I could take all that effort, all that energy and transplant the same effort and energy here and the impact would be exponential. So that’s why I came back. Also this is home; Ghana is home. I think the only reason I have been able to do the things I have is I had the opportunity….there are thousands of people who can do what I can do.
EB: There is this really vibrant ecosystem of science in Ghana, in spite of the public’s interest or disinterest, what do you think drives it?
TT: I think that a lot of people have come to the realization that what the developed countries have or are doing is nothing special besides just having the people and systems. If we in our part of the world don’t have the best systems but we do have the people, we are without excuse. It is people that put in systems. So change your small corner, connect with people who are changing their small corner and over time the system will be born out of it. I think that’s what’s driving it. There is a saying that he who knows right but doesn’t do it, to them it is wrong. Once you know that this is the right thing to do, you now have the responsibility to do it.
EB: Let’s go back to your childhood. Was this the path you thought you would take?
TT: No. I wanted to be a vet. When I got to high school I told my Dad I wanted to be a vet and he said “the animals in the zoo don’t even get fed.” So I had a reality check and I changed course. Then I wanted to be a doctor and then later I realized I didn’t really want to be a doctor but when you are young that is the most prominent option. But then I realized I like asking questions and getting answers and that was research. So that’s where I ended up.
EB: What do you want your legacy to be? Have you given that some thought?
TT: Yes! I wanted to win a Nobel Prize! But now I’m torn between whether I still want to do that or whether I can create a Neuroscience research center that produces Ghana’s first Nobel Prize winner. Maybe I’ll name it after myself. That would be a great legacy. I’d be happy with that.