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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
February 4, 2005

Susan White (Chemistry)
Why Teach Molecular Biology in Africa?

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Powerpoint Presentation

Susan gave a power point presentation addressing the question of "why teach molecular biology in Africa?" She has had experience doing so in Togo, which has a very depressed economy and is one of the world's fifty "LDC's" (least developed countries). It would be good to teach more science in preschools, since most children do not go on to college. Most of the students who are able to complete a course of study at the university will become teachers, so it would be good to have more teacher-to-teacher preparation, and to expose them to a variety of ways of teaching. But there are many obstacles to doing so. Running a laboratory there is very labor intensive. "Purified" water comes from the condensation of air conditioners. The political and the teaching systems are very "top-down." There are strikes (sometimes so many that an "annee blanche," or "white year," is declared: a "complete washout," because school has been closed so often). Even a student who wins at "lotto visa"--an initiative of the U.S. government to increase diversity in this country--needs more money than most Africans have to make good on the opportunity.

It may seem that "molecular biology is too expensive" under such conditions, and the perception of science in Togo is mixed. In the United States, research priorities--attention given to cardiovascular disease, impotence, depression and heartburn, for instance--are determined by the ailments of those who can pay. In Africa, the research priorities are quite different: they center around parasitic diseases, and the need for genetically modified agribusiness. Students have no interest in replacing traditional healing with modern medicine. But they are very interested in projects which could solve local problems and improve everyday life: malaria is a big concern, as are finding ways to address pollution, and learning the biotechnology to make plants more resistant to drought and insects. There is also fear, however (based on experience), that "bio-prospecting"--coming to understand and then market traditional African plant-based remedies--will result in taking that knowledge (and the profits it might generate) out of Africa, and developing it in the North.

How best engage, then, in educating students in the culture of being a scientist, in particular a molecular biology? Reference was made to the distinction, in last week's discussion, between science ("creating things that surprise people") and research ("solving human problems"). It is very difficult to do "pure science" in Africa; Susan often felt the desire to "retreat to her well-behaved lab," rather than try to supervise the kinds of applied science that were possible there. Western teachers are often "not flexible enough" to think in terms of finding local substitutes for the materials they generally handle in their labs, to ask, for instance, "What can I get @ the market to do science?" Researchers in the area are "continually chasing money" for one small project after the next; they cannot chose a single focus, because the work they do is dictated by their donors.

Given the difficulties of providing the narrow disciplinary training that we think of as science, what are teachers in Africa to do? Science "won't grow" in Togo, defined within these structures and sets of elaborate barriers. Perhaps scientists there might give up the ideal of what they think of as "real" research (=the kind pursued in large universities in the United States) and--rather than designing a U.S. research lab--engage instead in locally specific research. Africans have been engaged in discovery by trial and error, solving problems and coming to understand the world for centuries; there is a gold mine of understanding. Indigenous labs could be established where people would be encouraged to come with their old stories. These could be recorded, as the first step in a process of providing a critical analysis of their legitimacy. Traditional medicine is not science; it has not been critically evaluated. In this culture, effective methods of healing were not publicized, but treated as secrets to be passed on to the elect. In traditional African societies, one is generally not supposed to question. But science, which is fundamentally very critical, could become the process of reflecting on such practices. Scientists could collect the rules handed down through generations, and test their usefulness. They could implant in their students a disinclination to accept existing structures, and push them to be critical of received values.

Engaging in this kind of project might be a different way of looking at the presumption that "biochemistry transcends national boundaries," that the symbols of the periodic table "talk across cultures." What does it mean, for instance, to be a doctor in Togo? For example, a traditional way of healing a broken bone is to break a corresponding bone in the wing of a chicken; when the chicken bone heals, it is thought that the human bone will also. Do chemical interactions only work locally, if applied by a healer? Or can the chemistry of that healing happen anywhere? Is it the medicine, the healing ritual, the healer, or all three in combination which the sick person needs?

The further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum. The semester's series will continue next Friday, Feb. 11, when Ted Wong of the Biology Department will discuss "The Long Journey of a Simple Biological Model."

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