Issue Date: July 25, 2011
David Kwesi Dodoo remembers her only as “the Peace Corps lady.” He can’t recall her name, but Dodoo credits the volunteer who taught him chemistry at a secondary school in Ghana with nurturing his newfound interest in chemistry. Even after she returned to the U.S., she sent him chemistry books.
Dodoo continued with his chemistry studies at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, in Kumasi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1974. For graduate school he ventured abroad, studying environmental analytical chemistry under László Sommer at Jan Evangelista Purkyně University, Brno, now called Masaryk University, in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Dodoo received his Ph.D. in 1979.
He enjoyed his time in Europe, but he felt a pull to go back home. “I was keen to improve science in my country,” he says. So he returned to Ghana, where he has been on the chemistry faculty at the University of Cape Coast since 1982. During a study leave in 1986, he spent a year as a fellow at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s laboratory in Beaufort, N.C.
Dodoo focuses his research on environmental chemistry and in particular on the environmental and health effects of mining. Mining is a long-established industry in Ghana, dating back to the country’s days as the British colony Gold Coast.
“In Ghana, there are two types of mining. You have industrial, big-company mining. Then there is small-scale mining” conducted by so-called galamsey operators, Dodoo says. “In this small-scale mining, they use mercury in the extraction of gold. The mercury affects the miners themselves and the environment as a whole.”
The biggest challenge Dodoo and other Ghanaian chemists face is the country’s lack of funding and scientific infrastructure, he says. Ghana spends so little on research and development that the values don’t even show up in UNESCO Science Report 2010, a worldwide compilation of scientific indicators published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization. According to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, Ghana’s economy ranks 86 of 227 economies, with a total gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly $62 billion, but its per capita GDP of only $2,500 places it 175 of 228.
“Our laboratories are not well equipped,” Dodoo says. “When you’re doing research, you regularly have to comb the entire country to find one piece of equipment for a particular type of research.”
Sometimes the best option is to send samples abroad. For example, in 2009, while conducting research on the effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on the Ghanaian marine environment, Dodoo shipped sediment and water extracts for analysis to a former student working in Canada.
Scientific research wasn’t always in such dire straits. Under Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s leader until 1966, the country “developed schools that were equipped for doing science,” Dodoo says. In addition, Nkrumah set up various institutes under the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, focusing on areas such as water, soil, crop, and industrial research. These institutes still exist, but their funding levels have plummeted as the government’s interest in science has waned.
“We have these institutions, but we are not making use of them,” Dodoo says. “We expect that if you have set up these institutions, then you will challenge them to solve the problems of the nation, but it is not happening this way.”
Dodoo has noticed similarly declining interest from students. “The students here are not opting for science,” he says. “There is a lack of opportunities for employment.”
But the recent discovery of oil off Ghana’s coast raises hope of a turnaround. The growing petroleum industry could lead to a resurgence of interest in chemistry. “When students finish with their studies, they will be able to find work,” Dodoo says.
Dodoo is shifting his own research focus in response to Ghana’s growing oil industry. “We are redirecting our research efforts toward remediation exercises at the drilling sites and neighborhoods as a consequence of environmental contamination and other effects that may accompany oil production,” he says.
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