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Ghanaian chemist is finding toxic substances in unusual places

March 3, 2021

By Alison Bert, DMA

Marian Nkansah quote

Through her research and science diplomacy, an environmental chemist is changing the narrative in her native Ghana

Caption: Dr Marian Asantewah Nkansah is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST) and one of five winners of the 2021 OWSD Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World.

For Prof Marian Asantewah Nkansahopens in new tab/window, who specializes in environmental chemistry, circumstances continually remind her that science comes with a pricetag. It’s a reality faced by scientists everywhere, but for those in developing countries, the situation can be even more palpable.

Funding on our side of the world — for Ghana and most African countries — is driven unfortunately by funders from outside the continent. And most research that is funded outside the continent comes with pre-defined thematic areas which may not exactly be in line with what you really, really want to do. So most of the time, you attempt to write and skew your story to fit with the scope of the funding agency.

That has been the story for a lot of scientists in Africa: you do what you get the money for — not necessarily what you really dream about.

Through her research, teaching and science diplomacy, however, Marian is helping to change that narrative.

Marian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST)opens in new tab/window, in Kumasi, Ghana, where she teaches Practical Chemistry, Nuclear/Radiochemistry, Chemistry and Society, Petroleum Chemistry and Research Methods. Recently, she became one of the five winners of the 2021 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. She accepted the award on February 9 at the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meetingopens in new tab/window.

The award recognizes researchers who have made significant contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

In her research, Marian focuses on identifying toxic substances in the environment and determining the best remediation strategies. She focuses on inorganic contaminants such as heavy metals — and on organic contaminants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which find their way into  water, soil, food and the atmosphere.

Tracking illegal mining and the damage it can cause

Marian Nkansah in lab

In her lab at KNUST, Prof Marian Asantewah Nkansah checks the label of a solvent bottle before use.

Mining is a major contributor to the economy in Ghana, which is one of the top 10 gold producing countries, according to US Global Investors. Large miners and licensed small-scale miners are regulated by the government, which has strict environmental regulations.

But problems arise with illegal mining; while the operations are usually small-scale, the damage can be large. As Marian explained:

Because they are doing it illegally, sometimes in the night, it’s difficult to control and monitor their activities and insist they do the necessary remediation. And the sad aspect is that they also cause harm to themselves because they don’t have the know-how to wear the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and therefore do not take the safety precautions as they handle chemicals and so on.

Marian Nkansah and colleagues

Prof. Marian Asantewah Nkansah (left) with Prof Godfred Darko, Collaborator and Cordinator of the SHEATHE Project, and her graduate student Patrica-Ivy Agorsor in the SHEATHE laboratory.

Marian is supporting a project called SHEATHEopens in new tab/window, led by her KNUST colleague Prof Godfred Darkoopens in new tab/window and funded by Danidaopens in new tab/window, part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. The team is working on the first study designed to investigate the dispersion of heavy metals and other toxic substances across the entire country. She explained:

We take soil, water and air samples from across the country. And when we get to places we call the ‘hot spots’ — places that are typically going to contribute more to pollution, like mining areas — then we focus more and do detailed sampling.

A key part of this project involves public education.

Even before the program kicked off, we involved the media and stakeholders, and we’ve been doing that along the way. So when papers are published, we engage with the press, and some of us are called in to comment on national issues.

For example, in November 2020, Marian was called by a popular radio station that was discussing the consequences of the government’s decision to lift a ban on small-scale mining nearly two years after its introduction. In her intervention, she educated the public on the dangers associated with the use of mercury on the environment, miners and the populace at large, and she recommended remediation strategies for contaminated soil and water bodies.

Gradually, we are contributing to the public discourse, and hopefully we are contributing to the public understanding of some of the dangers associated with these toxic substances, and how we can better mitigate and remediate them.

Extending the reach of science with science diplomacy

Marian Nkansah presentation

Prof Marian Asantewah Nkansah gives opening remarks during the launch of her recently published self-help book Inspirational Quotes for Living

Public education has been a priority for Marian. A desire to further extend the reach of science in society prompted her to seek training in science diplomacyopens in new tab/window, which involves forging connections between nations and communities to solve problems and educate the public. Honing her skills as a Next Einstein Fellowopens in new tab/window and with organizations including the Global Young Academyopens in new tab/window and TWAS Young Affiliatesopens in new tab/window, she has participated in national and international platforms to discuss how to promote better public understanding of science.

Last year, she authored a case study on Ghana’s multifarious approach to COVID-19 for the International Science Council’s International Network for Government Science Advice.

Through the outreach program of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciencesopens in new tab/window and WiSTEM-Ghanaopens in new tab/window, she has taken part in mentorship of school children to spark their interest in STEM programs and peer mentorship of younger colleagues to guide them on their career path.

In recognition of her contributions to public understanding of science, she was featured in the book Women in Science: Inspiring Stories from Africaopens in new tab/window, published by the Network of African Science Academies in 2017. In June 2017, during the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetingopens in new tab/window in Germany, Marian joined a panel discussion on the topic “science in the post-truth era.”

“The discourse echoed the need for scientists to communicate their findings in simple language to counter the claims of conspirarcy theorists and influence public opinion,” she wrote, in her essay to apply for the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award.

Looking for toxins in unusual places

Marian Nkansah and colleagues in front of the FA Kuffour Chemistry Building at KNUST

Prof Marian Asantewah Nkansah (right) with two of her research collaborators: Patrica-Ivy Agorsor, who is her graduate student, and Prof Godfred Darko, Coordinator of the SHEATHE Project. They are in front of the FA Kuffour Chemisty Building at KNUST.

There’s another aspect of her research she is passionate about, despite the lack of available funding:

I am someone who likes to look at the simple things around me. So when you look at my chain of research, it's always about simple things. I call them the unusual places – so I investigate heavy metals in unusual places.

Normally, when you talk about pollutants and the environment, people think of mining, industry, petroleum. Of course, they're all important.

But toxic substances can also be found in food, in spices, in edible clay. They can be found even in lipstick, in herbal preparations, dust in classrooms, in the children's playground, etc. So I also look at these places which are less explored.

She investigated dust in classrooms with a colleague from the Ghana Atomic Energy Commisionopens in new tab/windowAnd for her research on edible clayopens in new tab/window, she worked with Prof Matt Doddopens in new tab/window, an environmental analytical chemist at Royal Roads Universityopens in new tab/window in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, who visits his native Ghana periodically with his portable x-ray fluorescence equipment.

Some of the samples contain toxic metals like lead, which has the tendency to bioacummulate in the environment and can trigger diseases when humans are exposed, she said:

The findings are always very useful and easy to relay to the general public. Every person can relate to lipstick or dust in kindergartens where children are playing on the ground. … White edible clay is something that a lot of pregnant women in Ghana eat to suppress nausea. So when you talk about it, everybody is interested – it's something they can relate to.

Despite the interest from the public, there has been little funding available for this research. So Marian relies mostly on her own resources.

“Doing science wasn’t a conscious choice – it was a natural response to my curiosity”

As a young child, Marian recalled, she was fascinated by the world around her and had a strong desire to improve it. Her parents were educators, so the house was filled with books and puzzles. She remembers “running around in the woods and the gardens chasing butterflies and stuff.”

For me, doing science wasn’t a conscious (choice) — it just happened because of how my environment was. I was curious, and I wanted to understand things and how they came into being.

I was always asking, ‘Okay, so how come it gets dark in the night? And how come the crickets always have a particular sound at night?’ … I didn't know it was crickets until I was a bit older. I thought it was just nature giving me some kind of an alarm that it’s nightfall.

She excelled at science in high school and went on to study chemistry at the university. When it came to choosing her specialization in graduate school, the decision was obvious.

I realized an environmental chemist embraced all the aspects of chemistry – organic, inorganic, physical, analytical – and I could use all these aspects to solve environmental problems. I’ve always wanted to do something different to make the world better, so I thought that was the best option.

Marian as Akan princess

Marian at 3, dressed as an Akan princess

On climbing the ladder as a woman in science

After completing her bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry at KNUST, she went to Norway to pursue her PhD in Environmental Chemistry at the University of Bergenopens in new tab/window. Upon completing it in 2012, she returned to KNUST, where she was promoted to Senior Lecturer and then Associate Professor in 2019, making her the youngest woman at the university to hold this position at the time.

That position was a milestone for her.

“I consider it my greatest achievement,” she said.

In her award application, she wrote about the challenges of being a woman in a largely male-dominated field of science while also working in a culture with more traditional views on woman in the workplace.

Coming from an environment where women in the public space have to wrestle with domestic and cultural expectations and where assertiveness is sometimes misconstrued as aggressiveness, I had to learn how to form positive partnerships with colleagues in a male-dominated field in order to climb the ladder. These linkages coupled with solid mentorship have been my pillars when the challenges seem insurmountable.

A formula to attract funding

While the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award comes with a cash prize of $5,000, Marian believes the visibility will be even more valuable to her research.

This is going to definitely give me more exposure and create more opportunities for me.  One thing I have observed is that there are a lot of excellent scientists out there, but I don’t think funding always goes to the most excellent on paper. Sometimes panels are influenced by the impact of the person's work and their outreach. So the more impactful your story, the more visible you are – that can make you a good candidate to attract funding.

I think that the world has reached a stage where excellent scientific work coupled with outreach is what gets you there. I hope the visibility that will be gained from this award will also attract potential collaborators to what I do.

About the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award

Since 2012, the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing Worldopens in new tab/window have recognized the achievements of researchers who have made significant contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge. The program represents a longstanding partnership between the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)opens in new tab/window (OWSD) and the Elsevier Foundationopens in new tab/window.

Each year, five winners are selected from the following regions: Latin America and the Caribbean; East and South-East Asia and the Pacific; Central and South Asia; the Arab region; Sub-Saharan Africa. Prizes are awarded annually on a rotating basis among the disciplines of Biological Sciences, Engineering Sciences and Physical Sciences.

Each winner is sponsored to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)opens in new tab/window, where they present their research at a special networking ceremony. There, they have the opportunity to attend workshops, meet experts in their field and visit local laboratories and institutions, establishing contacts and collaboration networks with colleagues from around the world.


Portrait photo of Alison Bert