The African scientist making enduring connections between Cambridge and Africa

As a graduate student in Cambridge almost 20 years ago, Pauline Essah asked herself: “Where are the other Africans?” Today she manages the University’s expanding Cambridge-Africa programme. It funds more than 150 collaborative projects in 18 countries across Africa.

Credit: Nick Saffell

My childhood was a bit unusual. My mother was a teacher and my father was a career diplomat. Although I was born in my home country of Ghana, we lived for a while in the former Yugoslavia, where I was the only African in my kindergarten class. We also spent four years in Egypt.

In Ghana, I went to boarding school. The Achimota Primary and Secondary Schools have rich histories of producing Ghanaian and African leaders. I credit my sense of discipline and organisation to the training, ethos and values of these fantastic schools.

I got the travel bug early on. My exposure to different cities in and outside Africa as a child was a blessing. It made me realise that the world was a big place with different countries and cultures.

As Cambridge-Africa programme manager I do a lot of travelling. It’s vitally important that I get out to meet people properly and build relationships with colleagues in African universities, and with current and potential international funders.

Away from home, you can feel isolated. When I first arrived in Cambridge in 1999 to study for an MPhil in plant sciences, I looked around and asked myself: “Where are the other Africans?” However confident you are, you’re likely to need a support structure of people like you, when in a foreign place on your own.

Growing up, I’d seen famine in Ghana. It affected everyone — even if you had money there was no food, due to prolonged drought. On television I saw famine in other African countries too. I saw the queues for food and wanted to know why this was happening — and what I could do to help.

This may have influenced my decision to study agriculture. I did my degree at the University of Ghana, majoring in crop science. It was a demanding course with lots of field work. However, to plant a seed and watch it grow into a crop that can feed people is wonderful.

Life in a lab can be really exciting. My MPhil research in Cambridge, which I did with a Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship at Pembroke College, was supervised by a brilliant Australian scientist called Dr Mark Tester. I looked at ways in which crops could be developed to tolerate salty soils. After completing the MPhil, I studied for a PhD in the same lab, this time with a Churchill College Studentship, and stayed on for a three-year postdoctorate.

However, I began to feel increasingly restless. A life focused on lab research no longer felt quite right. I needed to do something that led directly from my personal experience of being an African in Cambridge, and would enable me to show how much Cambridge could gain from engaging with African colleagues.

I wanted other people from Africa to have the same chances. Africa faces lots of challenges but also offers many opportunities for addressing global issues. I started to look around for schemes that connected Cambridge and Africa.

That’s when I spotted an advert on the Cambridge University website. It was for a part-time coordinator for a scheme that linked health researchers in Cambridge with health researchers in East Africa. The project had started in a small way and was led by David Dunne from the Department of Pathology — a great parasitologist, leader and friend of Africa.

On the day of the deadline, I applied for the post. I was put on a short list. At the interview, I made it clear that I would be keen to extend the programme beyond East Africa and also beyond health.

I was assured that the link with East Africa and the focus on health was just a starting point. I was offered the job and accepted it. Today, Cambridge-Africa reaches out to the entire sub-Saharan Africa. It also encompasses all subject areas — from archaeology to zoology. This has been achieved with a lot of team effort.

Our goals are clear. We support Africans whose research focuses on priorities identified in Africa, and who aim to return to Africa to benefit their institutions and countries. They receive the resources that will enable them to put into practice what they’ve learned in Cambridge.

There’s a lot to learn about Cambridge. When African researchers come here, they encounter different food, different culture — including the importance of joining in for a cup of tea — different climate and different ways of working. We help them settle in.

The benefits are two-way. The programme enables Cambridge researchers and students to run projects in Africa, hand-in-hand with African partners who have local knowledge essential to success. The cross-cultural exchange enriches everyone taking part — and lasting collaborations develop.

It’s important to tackle race, equality and diversity issues at Cambridge. Barriers still exist — and we need to address them. We want Cambridge to be a more inviting place for Africans who work or study here. I’ve become involved in a range of initiatives and a number of Africa-focused student societies are also helping to showcase diversity at Cambridge.

I’m also an advocate for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. On my degree course I was one of ten women among 60 men and had been one of very few girls at school doing straight science subjects. Happily, things are changing.

The rewards of my job are huge. We keep track of all the African researchers we’ve supported over the years, through fellowships and scholarships. Some have gone on to head their departments and one is even a deputy vice-chancellor. Many of the Cambridge-Africa supported research projects are flourishing. These success stories keep the Cambridge-Africa team motivated.

I’ve achieved something for Africa. I sleep with a clear conscience in the knowledge that I’m helping to establish connections that will endure. Sometimes, I hope I’ll wake up to find a donation of millions of pounds to develop the programme. It hasn’t happened yet, but you never know…

Pauline Essah is Cambridge-Africa programme manager and a senior member of Hughes Hall.

Read more about Cambridge University’s collaborative research in Africa in our research magazine: download a pdf; view on Issuu.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.