October 21, 2017

How To Make Female Neuroscientists

The human brain, that 1.4kg squishy organ located between your ears and behind your eyes uses up 20% of all the energy your body produces and determines whether you prefer #WaakyeWednesdays over #JollofJeudi. For all its wonders, the brain remains one of the most mysterious things we have ever tried to study. The worldwide scientific community goes agog whenever there is a new technique or discovery, because the implications for human development is vast. Here in Ghana it appears that neuroscience research has gone to bed since the first publication in 1971 by a team of researchers at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Now GhScientific and the Ghana Neuroscience Society (GNS) want to wake up a new generation of researchers to the possibility of future careers in neuroscience.

On Saturday 14th January 110 girls from 9 senior high schools gathered at the University of Ghana Medical School thanks to support from the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO). What drew these girls together, was the opportunity to engage with professionals in the neuroscience fields and try their hands at some simple techniques used by researchers to develop new drugs and study conditions such as depression. By 8.30am the school buses had started rolling in and girls from schools including the African Science Academy, Ngleshi Amanfro SHS and Tema International School were disembarking and preparing for what would be a memorable experience.

After a quick breakfast in the form of biscuits and beverages the day began with a quick overview of neuroscience and its associated fields. In line with the neuroscience theme, the girls were split into groups with names such as Hippocampus, Amygdala and Corpus Callosum. With that, we were ready to begin.

Catching flies for research

Neuroscientists typically use all sorts of animals for their research including fruit-flies. But first, you have to catch them. For their first activity, the girls had to build fly-catchers from empty plastic bottles, and string. Armed with their own bait made from a choice of yeast, sugar and mashed banana, the girls were left to decide on places where their traps were most likely to catch some flies. The hypothalamus and Amygdala groups were found wandering around waste bins looking for the perfect place to hang their traps.

Fly catching is a time-consuming business, so with the traps set, it was now time to meet the mentors.

Meeting the mentors

The Ghana Neuroscience Society reached out to its members for professionals who would serve as mentors on the day and sure enough they turned up on the day. The girls had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Augustina Charway-Belli (Neurologist), Dr. Alberta Nsiah-Asamoah (Psychiatrist) and Harriet Blankson (Molecular Biologist). Other professionals present included the president of the Ghana Neuroscience Society, Dr. Patrick Amoateng (Neuro-pharmacologist), Ewurama Owusu (Neuroanatomist), Grace Aboagye (Pharmacist) and Dr. Beatrice Danfor-Williams a Clinical Psychologist. The groups took turns to speak to each of these professionals and asked questions relating to choice of university courses, benefits of studying at home or abroad, career paths, salary (yes they went there), job satisfaction and even how to balance married life with a research career. Rotating the groups every 15 minutes became a near impossible task as the girls had so much more they wanted to hear and ask. It was no surprise to see the conversations continue at lunch time and mentors giving their contact details to many of the girls.

What can animals teach us?

After lunch it was time to move into the labs and get first-hand experience of techniques which are used in neuroscience research worldwide. Laboratory bred fruit flies were made available by Dr. Michael Osei of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission for the girls to run simple behavioural experiments. This included a test for motility, which can give insights into genetic defects leading to movement disorders. The girls also run experiments to find out if fruit-flies prefer the smell of Alansa to rotten plantain, because sometimes science exists for no other reason than to satisfy curiosity.

Away from flies, there were also some experiments with mice. Mice are the most used animal species in neuroscience research because their brains have similar structures to human brains and what we learn from them can be easily applied to ourselves. The girls observed various demonstrations which are used to test drugs such as anti-depressants, painkillers or anxiety relievers. The girls also had the chance to observe natural mice behaviour and how this can be used to identify unnatural behaviour in cases of disease conditions. The enthusiasm and constant stream of questions was evidence that the girls valued what is an experience that most of their peers will never have.

The end of the day saw a sharing of information and resources that the girls can turn to on their journey to become researchers. Many of the girls expressed delight at their newly found appreciation for neuroscience. The Neurogirl Camp 2017 served its intended purpose; to break down barriers of perception and knock neuroscience down from its position in the ivy towers to a place where all the girls can reach. At the end of the day we can confidently say that we are 110 girl closer to correcting the gender imbalance observed in neuroscience.