I got to know Elsie from LinkedIn because different organisations kept awarding and recognising her amazing work in the education sector of Ghana. I wanted to know more about what drives her spirit. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hello Elsie, thank you for joining me today
Hi Winnie, thanks for the invite. I know you tried so hard to reach me, thank you for that. And I apologise, I have been too busy in the last couple of months.
Briefly introduce yourself to the audience please
My name is Elsie Effah Kaufmann from Ghana – born and raised here. Currently I am a Biomedical Engineer but I am an academic as well – Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Ghana. As we speak, I am doing a sabbatical at another university – University of Health and Allied Sciences, also in Ghana.
This is the first time I am interviewing a Biomedical Engineer, so I am excited to learn, haha.
Please tell us how you became a Biomedical Engineer
This is a very interesting question which can take a long time to answer but let me give you the shorter version, haha.
Like I said, I grew up in Ghana and started schooling here too. But by that time, there was nothing like Biomedical Engineering in Ghana; in fact I pioneered the start of a Bachelors degree in Biomedical Engineering program in Ghana! There was nothing like that. So as a child, this was nothing I dreamed of or knew anything about. Even when I chose to pursue the degree, I didn’t really know much about it. All this comes back to the way in which we are trained here in Africa. In school, teachers only look out for very good students and direct them towards the sciences. The idea is that they will become medical doctors because that’s the most visible position for students in science. This was very much the same with me; I was expected to go to medical school and become a medical doctor. That was the life set for me.
The interesting thing that happened is that, while I was in secondary school, I got an opportunity to leave Ghana. My headmistress recommended me for a scholarship program with the United World Colleges. I didn’t really know what it was about but I was sent to go do an examination and then an interview. I was then selected among 3 secondary school students from all over Ghana, to represent the country at the United World Colleges. I didn’t have my passport so definitely travelling wasn’t part of the plans then, haha. I then started my journey to the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, UK. This is an international school that promotes peace and international understanding in the world. They select young people from all over the world who spend 2 incredible years getting to understand each other’s culture and basically realising that as human beings, we are pretty much alike. We are also trained on how to make an impact in our home countries.
When I got to this school, we were 350 students for the 2 years I was there and 68 countries represented. This was amazing, and by the way one of my best friends from that school was from Uganda – Rita Mukasa, haha. We got all kinds of amazing things there; I actually got a chance to visit London, France, and all these activities broadened my view of what the world is. That’s when I learned that it wasn’t just about going to medical school but how I would use that knowledge to make a difference in my country.
In my second year there, we were required to make interviews with the director of studies to decide our way forward after the school. But during that period, universities in Ghana were facing some challenges so I wasn’t really sure of what to do. I later got some advice from an American friend who used to stay in my “house”. She suggested that I choose the US, and that’s how everything started. I applied to the University of Pennsylvania because I read about their bio engineering program and it sounded like something you would do before joining medical school. I got my admission and moved to the US.
Right from my first year in this program, I had a wonderful time! They had these classes where we were supposed to behave like engineers 100 years down the road; coming up with innovations in health care, I really enjoyed that. That’s how my mind really started changing. We also had access to students who had gone ahead to join medical school. Comparing what they were doing and what we were doing in engineering school, mine was more exciting, haha. That’s how I changed my mind and decided to be a biomedical engineer. I ended up pursuing all those degrees in biomedical engineering and came back to Ghana in 2001 after finishing everything.
Then it became clear to me what it is I was supposed to do for my country. There were only 2 programs in biomedical engineering at the graduate level on the entire African continent; in South Africa and Egypt. I was recruited to start an engineering program at Ghana’s premier university and was on the committee that wrote the proposal to start an engineering program at Legon (University of Ghana). Being there meant I had to bring my department. That’s how I became a pioneer in biomedical engineering in Ghana.
What would you point out as the most challenging experience along this journey?
Life is full of highs and lows; it’s a normal part of being alive, right! So yes, I did face challenges.
The good thing is that I had been trained to be independent – one of the things I thank my parents for – so leaving home for the UK wasn’t such a challenge for me. But now adjusting to a new environment – winter time for example – was the problem. I had also been used to a certain way of teaching, you know the African way, haha! We don’t ask questions because whatever the teacher tells us is the solid truth. Now here I was in a class full of interactions between teachers and students. In this school critical thinking was a requirement, we were supposed to have discussions on some of the most controversial topics. I had to find ways of forming an opinion and engage in the discussions because I took the idea serious that I was representing my country! My presence there had to matter. I remember for the first time in a science class I had a chance to design my own experiment as opposed to following instructions from a teacher. All this was challenging to me at first but I adjusted pretty well. By the time I was leaving, my thinking was completely different from what it was when I had just joined.
As a strong African female figure in STEM, what challenges have you faced while breaking all these barriers?
I have to give a disclaimer to say that I have not been explicitly intimidated or discouraged; that’s probably because of my attitude, haha. I have chosen to be so focused on my work that I can’t see certain distractions.
If you follow my path you will see that I have been a pioneer in most of things that I do. So when I start a project, I have a vision for it. And as you can imagine, I work with teams because I enjoy maximising the synergy that comes from individuals from different backgrounds. When assembling my teams, I give people chances, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt but I have unfortunately been disappointed in the past. I have worked with people who haven’t understood my vision sometimes, there are some who have worked hard to undermine my abilities. I don’t know if this has been because I was young or a woman!
Truthfully, I have seen certain reactions because I am female. For example, a student comes to me with these amazing compliments about my work, the way I inspire them and how they are honoured to have me as their head of department. Only problem is they can’t tell their parents that their head of department is a woman! Their father will question how serious that engineering department is!
There are also certain unwritten but unrealistic expectations. Like if you are a female head of department then you are expected to be motherly. So your review of whether you are doing a good job depends on your ability to be motherly in addition to doing the job described for you in your appointment letter.
I have also had issues with my relationship! I was married, I am now divorced. Maybe part of it is about me being too focused and doing certain things which may not necessarily be healthy for a relationship.
Overall, my idea has been to rise above all this! You know, once I know what my vision is, I tend to push all the negativity out of my way and keep moving forward. I choose to see my challenges as a normal part of life; something to learn from and make my way forward.
What has kept you moving through these challenging times?
It’s having that goal and objective. Like I said, I am a planner; so I set specific goals with certain expectations and I draw strategies to achieve those goals. Once I am on that path, it is very difficult for me to be derailed.
I have also taken chances to learn from other people. Even at this stage in my life, I have mentors; I see mentorship as a very important aspect of growth. That’s why I try so hard to mentor others because I myself have received encouragement through mentorship.
My mother is a constant source of support for me. There are moments I have been so busy as a single parent. Dealing with children those days – now they are grown and I am more free than I used to be– but was hard! But the practical support that she gave me, like coming to stay with me to manage certain things during times when I couldn’t, is something I will forever be grateful for.
So in summary, the inspiration come from within me, relying on my key mentors to help me through difficult times, accepting help when offered, and prioritising my tasks.
I couldn’t wait to ask about your prestigious moments in life, haha. Please tell us about that.
Haha, you know I recently got a chance to speak to a group of students who invited me to their session and my title was about sustainable success. I asked them what they considered successful. Winnie, I have received many awards and many people know me for the awards but all my awards have been received because of things I did for other people; I have never received an award for anything I have done for myself! So to me success is about your contribution to others; the sacrifices you make to make life better for others.
In 2010 I received the best teacher award for sciences at my university – University of Ghana. This award was for the work I had done to help establish engineering plus the activities I do in my classes. Each of my classes has a course project because I want to change the narrative from just theoretical exposure in class to something more practical for my students. So my students know me for asking them to look for problems in their societies and come to class with them. They know that I don’t have all the solutions but I have a lot of experience; so if your solution is not feasible, I have the ability to point that out and give you suggestions on how to make it work.
Since 2017, I have been receiving all kinds of awards every year, haha. In 2017 itself I received the Impact Africa Summit award for education in Ghana; I am the Laureate for Ghana in education. It again has to do with my attitude towards promoting education in Ghana.
I am also the host for a science quiz program called the National Science and Math Quiz, for secondary schools in Ghana. You will be amazed at what happens in this program, haha. So this is a month-long televised Science competition where all schools come together to find out who wins for that year. The whole country comes to a stand-still, everybody is watching because everyone is affiliated in one way or another to a school. My purpose here is to make people understand that you don’t have to be a science student to enjoy sciences. The applications of science are reachable and everywhere around us.
In 2011, I was a fellow of the International Women’s Forum Leadership program – the leadership foundation. I guess my application for this was strong because some of the activities I have done in education. This allowed me to go back to school – Harvard Business School and INSEAD, executive education programs. This was another opportunity for me to build my leadership skills and strengthen my ability to do the things I have been able to do and are still doing.
Then there is the National Society for Black Engineers Golden Torch award for international academic leadership in 2018. As a student in the US, I was a member of the National Society for Black Engineers – a minority group ensuring that black engineers were being successful at what they were doing. I was later selected as a patron for the chapter at University of Ghana. I have been working with the students to promote science and education and also supporting them [students] to excel in their studies.
I have a collaboration with my colleague at the University of Michigan to develop an academic program around global health. This involves students from both universities – Michigan and Ghana – moving to hospitals to identify problems, which they then tackle for their final projects.
In 2019 I received the Glitz Africa award; I was an honoree for excellence, also in education. My awards are all around education basically, haha.
Recently in 2020 I was inducted as a Fellow of Biomaterials Science and engineering by the International Union of Societies of Biomaterials Science and Engineering. This is a professional recognition and I am very proud of it; it’s like the highest accolade I can get from the international society in my discipline.
I am also a member of the Scientific Program’s Committee for the Next Einstein Forum (NEF). I am a strong support for all activities carried out by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), especially their most recent Girls in Mathematical Sciences Program (GMSP) in Ghana.
I can’t mention everything, it will take so long, haha. But the key point is if it’s awards that you are looking for, it will mostly come out of the things you do for others.
You do a lot of work with your students and around your community! How do you spend your personal time?
I am a mother of 3 wonderful and amazing children, I like spending time with them. Each of them likes different things so I so my best to make sure I understand that about them. These are likes or interests that keep changing with time, haha, so I have to keep up with them. But I really enjoy spending time with my children.
I also love travelling. Before the pandemic, I would get a chance, maybe once a year, to visit a place I have never been to. Even my conferences were opportunities to explore, haha.
I like reading, a lot! I read anything, and everything. I also like listening to classical music. I find joy in catching up with my friends and classmates from all over the world.
My second last question; do you have a favourite quote?
Yes I do, you are the second person to ask me about my best quote, haha. This is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson; “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. So as a pioneer, this is what I have been following all my life; moving around the world, leaving all kinds of different trails everywhere.
What is your advice for a young girl starting her journey in STEM?
First of all, the choice to do STEM is a good one because it makes you versatile, even if you choose to leave STEM. It is a lot easier to go from STEM to other things than do otherwise. STEM is an excellent foundation. Don’t focus so much on the details at the beginning, rather about the skills you are acquiring in the process; logical thinking, critical thinking, analytical skills. These are things that will serve you well anywhere you go. If you are struggling and are not yet sure where this is leading, think of it as a time for acquiring necessary skills that you will need to live a meaningful life. Work hard and hang in there. Most of the valuable things in life don’t come on a silver platter, we have to work for them. And STEM is exactly that way; you have to invest time and effort to see your yields.
I would also like to tell this young girl that she is not alone; sometimes we feel like we are isolated, especially on this STEM journey but no, there is support out there. There are people who have been where you are, find a mentor; someone who has been where you want to reach and can speak positively into your life. There are many people, I mean, me myself, I am there to support young girls in STEM. Be proud of what you are doing and enjoy the journey – good and bad in it, enjoy everything.
Thank you very much Elsie, for making me enjoy this session and for being so free with me. I am very proud to personally know you and the good work you do for our precious continent. Thank you very much.