All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Theoretically informed, practically inhibited.

A grad student corners me outside the computer lab to quiz me on Elisas (antigen detection system). He’s read all about them, but has yet to get a chance to try one for himself. He’s eager, and very bright. He exudes excitement for his field (Microbiology), overfilled with all the practical information he can get get his hands on, but no outlet.

At the farms, a lab tech stares intently at his pipettor, which only moments ago was fully functioning. Now, a small piece has come off. He rigs it back together and smiles with self-satisfaction that’s he’s managed to fix it, for the time being anyway. His lab is dimly lit, and as we sit around as his colleague sighs and slumps into his chair, propping his feet on a small bar beneath the haphazardly placed table. “There’s a lot of work to do” he tells me, “it’s frustrating, we have all this knowledge, but nowhere to apply it.” And it’s true, I learn, as James recounts all of the necessary changes that need to occur before anything can happen. But of course, the problem stems from the usual, lack of funding.

In all of my volunteer work thus far, there has been a general consensus, education is the key to advancement-and I agree. But what happens when the education is there, but the tools are not? Training a lab tech in Moshi to use sterile technique to get more accurate results in the HIV clinic is relatively simple, he has the tools, he just needs the education. But for these educated scientists it’s mostly just a waiting game. The research is needed, as it directly impacts farm animals, and as a result the well-being of their owners. Just as the Masai in Kenya rely heavily on their cattle, a disease can wipe out their stock, and subsequently cause great hardship. But nothing can be done, yet. Not until money comes in, and as all of us in academia can agree-grants are hard to come by in any field. Not to suggest this is novel, bureaucracy and funding issues run rampant in most countries, yet I have yet to experience it so profoundly where an entire institution is essentially at standstill, just waiting for their signal to go.

To be honest, this isn’t what I expected. The University of Ghana is the oldest and most established University in the country, attracting local as well as foreign students. With a faculty in the sciences with strong backgrounds and often western educations, I had anticipated something else. I had thought I would help out in the lab, concerned that armed only with an undergrad education, I would be inadequate to assist at times. I’m not sure why I thought this, or if it was naive. I’ve instead spent much time listening, observing, and consulting-and I’ve immensely enjoyed it. I feel invigorated, discussing anything related to science, clearly, I’ve missed it. And I love that the language of science, and the underlying frustrations of lab work, are international, and a way to relate to others. Spending half an hour discussing Elisas with a student was a highlight of my day, though I feel for him and his frustration to actually flex his pipetting muscles. I’m excited, however, to see how the remaining three weeks unfold, everyday has been different, exciting in its own way, and I’m loving every minute of it-more each day.

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