Gordon Awandare: Ghana’s Homecoming King
Malaria has been part of Gordon Awandare’s life for as long as he remembers. Growing up in Kandiga, a small village in northeastern Ghana, he used to get the disease at least twice a year. Treatment was scarce. His grandmother would lay him on a mat in the cool shade of a tree and give him acetaminophen—if there was any. “You just toughed it out,” he recalls grimly.
These days, Awandare is in the vanguard of a fight against the parasitic disease that infects more than 7 million Ghanaians each year and kills more than 2,000—most of them young children. He is the founding director of the West African Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana, a center that in just a few years has grown into a thriving research hub studying malaria and other scourges such as Buruli ulcer, HIV, and tuberculosis.
Awandare’s young age, 42, is remarkable in a country where academic seniority usually comes with the passing of decades rather than merit. But then, nothing about Awandare is ordinary. Seven years ago, he left a promising career in the United States to return home armed with a vision, some chemical reagents, and not much else.
It was need, pure and simple, that drove him from his homeland. After completing his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Ghana, there were few opportunities to progress further, either in his home country or in neighboring ones. The PhD system at the University of Ghana was archaic and could take a decade to complete. Besides, there was no funding.
But a chance meeting at a conference in Tanzania opened up a new world for the young scientist. Douglas Perkins, then at the University of Pittsburgh, invited him to try for a PhD fellowship at his institution earmarked for Africans. Although the deadline was imminent, Awandare secured a place. He took a leave of absence from the University of Ghana and arrived in the U.S. just eight months later, in August 2003, and began work on his childhood nemesis—malaria.
At Pitt, Awandare studied severe malarial anemia, one of the leading causes of child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. Academically, he says, he found it easy; he recognized much of the science from his master’s degree in Ghana. But the way people interacted with each other in public took some getting used to. “The first thing I noticed was that people would walk by you and not say hello. In Ghana, you say hello to everyone, whether you know them or not.”
After finishing his PhD in 2007, Awandare toyed with the idea of returning home. But he didn’t feel ready. “I knew that if I came home I’d have to win international grants. There were no grant schemes in Ghana.” Instead, he took on a postdoc at Walter Reed Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he continued studying malaria for the next three years, this time focusing on Plasmodium falciparum—the deadliest of the four malaria parasites that infect humans.
As luck would have it, as he wrapped up his work at Walter Reed, the lab where he was based began the process of closing. “My supervisor said I could take anything I wanted back to Ghana.” So when Awandare shipped a container of his worldly belongings back across the Atlantic in 2010, it held not only the biochemist’s car and TV, but also some lab kits, reagents, and hundreds of glass microscope slides. (Sadly, the slides were stolen out of his car in the Accra harbor after arrival.)
Back at the University of Ghana, Awandare got lucky again. While he did not have money to start a lab, his old department was moving into a brand new building, so at least there was space. He began applying for every grant he could find, hoping to establish a lab that could host lots of students. “I just felt that people needed to have the opportunity here that I didn’t have.”
It took him two years—during which time he says he was running up a US credit card bill just to make ends meet—but then he landed two grants at once: a £150,000 ($233,760) award from the UK’s Royal Society, to share with a partner in the U.K., and a prestigious $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), both aimed to transfer the lab work he’d been doing as a postdoc to a real malaria-endemic area. “We had discovered a receptor that was a potential target for a vaccine,” he explains. “But the work had been done in the U.S. on lab parasites, which [had] been outside of humans for a long time. I wanted to take parasites directly from infected children and see if it was a useful target there.”
The grants let Awandare appoint four master’s students and one PhD candidate, create a lab, and set up field sites to collect samples. The NIH grant also allowed him to up his salary, which at that point was not even fully paying the bills. By mid-2013, the lean times were over.
Growing a powerhouse
In August that year, the World Bank announced a scheme targeting the improvement of West African science. It offered low-interest loans to governments in the region to establish research “centers of excellence.” Awandare’s proposal was one of 19 chosen for funding, receiving a whopping $8 million over the next four years.
The birth of WACCBIP was not without drama. Some of Awandare’s older colleagues were displeased that a young upstart was leading the prestigious project. “I was lucky that there were young people in my department who had worked abroad, like me, and who had come back after their PhDs. I had their trust; they knew I could do it.”
By August 2014, WACCBIP had grown to include 22 master’s students and 15 researchers working toward their PhDs. That would be plenty for some, but an opportunity came along that was too good to pass up: the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development announced a major funding scheme for developing African research leaders.
People urged Awandare not to apply. “They thought I was crazy. They said: ‘Nobody will give you, an unknown, this type of money when you already have $8 million.’ Even some of my collaborators in the U.K. told me it wasn’t a good idea.” But when the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa scheme announced its seven winners in September 2015, Awandare’s WACCBIP was among them.
Awandare’s international collaborators praise his passion. “He is most determined to mitigate Ghana’s brain-drain in the life sciences by creating opportunities at home,” says Justin Stoler, a global health geographer at the University of Miami who has worked with Awandare on several papers.
Currently, WACCBIP has an annual budget of $2 million per year. The latest funding injection has allowed it to strengthen its pathogen biology research, add a postdoctoral program, and embark on projects focused on human genetics. There are currently 34 master’s students, 41 PhD candidates, and 12 postdocs associated with the center, as well as 32 local faculty and more than 40 regional and international contributing scientists.
WACCBIP has rejuvenated the University of Ghana’s biochemistry department, says Mark Carrington, a biochemist from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. who has known Awandare for six years. “The changes are enormous, it has gone from a slowly dying department to one that is doing cutting-edge research and attracting collaborators from around the world.”
WACCBIP’s current funding sees it through 2020. Beyond that, it will be up to Awandare and his colleagues to generate more. Because there is little support for research in Ghana, most of it will have to come from outside. It’s a challenging prospect, but Awandare says he doesn’t regret leaving relative security in the U.S. for life on the edge in West Africa. He’s where the diseases are, and where he feels he can make a difference. “Research needs to be anchored in reality,” he says.