Graduate student Kwaku Tawiah hopes to bring his biochemistry research home to Ghana

While Ghana was spared in the Ebola outbreak that hit West Africa in 2014, Ghana is not immune to Ebola’s aggressive nature, nor is it immune to other world diseases. Kwaku Tawiah, a biochemistry graduate student at the University of Missouri, hopes to one day open up a diagnostic center in his home country to help identify new cases of diseases like Ebola and move toward more preventative approaches for other illnesses by providing a place for people to get tested.

Tawiah works in professor of biochemistry Donald Burke’s lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center. He spends much of his time analyzing cell cultures to study new ways to treat diseases like cancer and ebola. Although the research is in early stages of development, Tawiah hopes eventually to bring his knowledge back to Ghana to help diagnose these diseases on the ground instead of sending blood samples to other countries, which costs time and money.

Tawiah said his father, Jones Tawiah, inspires him to work hard. Raised in a small village in Ghana, his father was the only male child out of seven kids. Education for girls was not encouraged, so he was the only one who went to school. Tawiah’s father wanted to make sure his seven children, both male and female, had every opportunity to learn, so he worked for the Ghanaian government as the district chief executive, which is like a city mayor in the U.S. Now he now runs a farm with livestock, mangoes and yams.

Kwaku remembers his father pampering him as a child. Kwaku was the first male child, so Kwaku could succeed Jones and become the head of the family.

Tawiah’s parents and the rest of his family are still in Ghana. He’s the only one outside of the country. In a phone interview, Tawiah’s mother, Alice Wiredu, recounted what Kwaku was like as a boy. She said Kwaku would follow her during the day to help solve problems around the house. He was always her helper.

Now that Tawiah is set out to help his country, his parents couldn’t be more proud. Jones boasts about his son to his friends whenever he gets the chance.

“It’s a privilege in Ghana—it’s a very big privilege to have your child follow their dreams,” Jones said. “He’s doing great things, and he’s coming back home to excel.”

Tawiah’s parents had a direct influence on his school and career choices. In Ghana, parents choose a track for their children. His mom and dad decided to put him in a science-specific track.

“In our culture, your parents shape what you want to do, and they choose for you,” he said. “They saw all my strengths and my weaknesses, so they directed me to science in high school.”

He started studying agriculture science in high school, but his plans changed when a family friend told him about a scholarship to study in the U.S. He applied for the International Doorway Academic Scholarship Program and started his journey to the United States.

Traveling from Ghana to St. Louis, Missouri, was an adventure for Tawiah. He had never before left his home country, which has a mild tropical climate where the weather rarely reaches higher than the low 80s.

“Everything was different, everything—the food, the weather. I had this conception in my mind that it was going to be cold, but I got here in St. Louis in August. Closest thing to hell,” Tawiah joked.

Tawiah started his undergraduate career at Lindenwood University in St. Charles in 2009. After starting college, he fell in love with research.

“When I got here, I realized the vast opportunities to study,” Tawiah said. “When you think about science, the only thing I could think of was becoming a doctor, but then I started doing research and I was like, ‘Oh wow, there’s a whole other world out there.”

After finishing up his undergraduate degree, Tawiah decided to study biochemistry at MU. Graduate students work for 10 weeks in three different labs before they settle on one they would like to join. Tawiah chose Burke’s lab after rotating between another lab that studied viruses and one that studied plants.

Tawiah’s research focuses on RNA aptamers, which are smaller parts of RNA that can bind to other cells. RNA is like a copy of DNA that carries genetic information to other parts of the cell, and it can control the expression of genes in a person.

“We make use of genetic molecules to construct new tools that can be used to help understand how biology works and engineer biology to do cool new things, all the way from building mimics of the organisms that might have existed at the origin of life to combating cancer and HIV and Ebola virus,” Burke said in an interview.

RNA molecules can fold into three-dimensional structures that have chemical properties and can tell what type of cell they’re interacting with. “Those (chemical) properties, for example, might have the ability to snuggle up next to some other molecule and differentiate, ‘Oh, this is a flu virus,’ ‘Oh, this is a cancer cell,” or something else or other sorts of interactions, as it does with other molecules as the bump into each other,” Burke said.

Burke’s research is known as a targeted delivery system and is relatively new to the science world. Sometimes when the molecules bump into each other, Burke said, they stick. When the molecules stick together, they stay together. This means Burke and his team can take advantage of the stickiness to block certain cells from replicating and making a person sick with diseases such as cancer, HIV and Ebola.

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Tawiah, middle, talks with his colleagues, David Porciani and Leah Cardwell during Life Sciences Week while presenting the research from a paper they’re in the process of writing about targeted delivery systems. Photo by Elizabeth Cassidy

When Tawiah isn’t in the lab, he’s typically at Stankowski Field playing soccer or watching the game on TV at home. On Sundays, he prepares traditional Ghanaian dishes like Joloff, which, Tawiah said, is like jambalaya.

While food is one way Tawiah stays in touch with his roots, Tawiah also talks to people like Burke about his aspirations to go back to Ghana and help his country.

He said his home has a lot of the world diseases—especially the ones that make the news for outbreaks and epidemics like Malaria and Ebola—and there isn’t a permanent facility to diagnose these diseases.

“Where I come from in West Africa, we have most of the world diseases, but then all the research is done (in the U.S.), and I feel like having the research where the diseases are from will at least have some benefit because whoever is doing it will see the direct impact,” he said. “In the future, I see myself pushing some of those things back to Ghana.”

He’s motivated by the unanswered whys of the universe and works to find not only better treatments for diseases, but what is the root cause of them.

“I think the most intriguing part is getting to the molecular level,” Tawiah said. “We know diseases are dangerous, but it’s intriguing for me to know exactly how this is happening. I think that’s what keeps me going. It drives me to find answers.”

 

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