By Thomas Tagoe
Smart students study science and science students become doctors. Regardless of which part of the world you grew up in, you will be familiar with this statement or a modified version that shares the same sentiment. Sentiments that suggest studying science is the preserve of smart students and studying medicine is regarded the very peak achievement. Growing up in Ghana, no one ever explicitly said this to me, it just seemed like common knowledge. For the first nine years of my journey through education, I was always among the top three performers in my class, and I wanted to be a doctor. I was in good company too, my classmates Festus and Alberta both wanted to be doctors.
The next 12 years of my educational journey was spent in the United Kingdom, where the story remained mostly the same. Entry into medical school was akin to threading a frayed thread through the eye of the needle and only the smartest students made it or even wanted to attempt it. Despite the similarities between the two countries, some differences started creeping up the more I paid attention. This led to two observations; firstly, there were more people who went against this “common knowledge”. Take Luke for example, a friend I made during my A-levels. Luke was easily the sharpest knife in the drawer but with more interest in making movies than studying medicine. My second observation was the abundance of information about multiple career pathways and personal experiences from persons within those careers. It is not a far stretch to say these two observations must have been connected.
Fast forward to present day and I find myself back in Ghana, Neuroscience PhD in hand and explaining to every high school student I meet that although I am a “doctor”, I am not the one you want by your side in case of health emergencies.
It appeared that my childhood “common knowledge” remained the present day “common knowledge” for many of the students I interacted with; this became exceedingly clear while executing a Wellcome funded project to challenge high school students using project based learning approaches. My team engaged with 1,790 high school students, of which 52% said science and maths were their favourite subjects and 20% said they wanted to be medical doctors. This 20% felt the need to study medicine at all costs, considering the limits on medical school admissions, there was bound to be some broken hearts down the road.
It became clear that if things were to change, these students needed to make the same two observations that I made during my time in the UK. My first choice was to fly every high school student I met to the UK for 12 years of education. If this experience had led to me to consider alternative career paths, it was sure to do the same for them too. However, for some unknown reason, no one seemed too keen on funding such an idea! Thankfully, the Biochemical Society was willing to fund my second idea; create more “Lukes” by making available abundant information about multiple career pathways and personal experiences from persons within those careers.
Together with the Ghana Science Association, we are calling this video series, “A Day in the life of…”. We are building a library of five-minute videos showcasing science professionals from different fields as they share their motivations, memorable experiences and what a typical working day looks like for them. So far the library has seven careers featured: A Pharmacologist, A Physiotherapist, A Developmental Neuroscientist, An Entomologist, An Immunologist, A PhD Fellow and A Lab technician. There are other professions soon to be added, including a Mathematician, A Biomedical Engineer, a Quantity Surveyor and an AI Engineer.
The process of creating and sharing these videos has been a great learning experience for me. After many years working in higher education, it is easy to lose sight of how experiences during the junior and secondary school years can be impactful in framing student’s aspirations. I have gained a renewed appreciation of role models and the value they have in influencing the career choices of students. Many students will choose to pursue careers similar to that of a “cool” relative, a professional they interacted with who made an impression or a personality they have admired from afar. If we are to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce and the quality of human resource capital available within the various fields, then more role models are required. Professionals working within these fields who are ready to step out and showcase to the world the brilliance in all that they do.
About the Author:
Thomas Tagoe is a Neuroscience lecturer at the University of Ghana.