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STEM Education in Liberia

Jacqueline Tanaka

Jacqueline Tanaka earned a PhD in Physiology from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in 1981. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and later a faculty member in Biochemistry and Molecular Physics. Her research focused on the structure-function properties of ion channels. In 2000, she moved to Temple University where she teaches in the biology department. She teaches a senior level course in the Biological Impacts of Climate Change, a graduate course in Ethics and Policy in Biotechnology and Biological Reasoning for students who have failed Introductory Biology or who enter college from high schools with low math placement scores. The course is designed to provide them with tools for successful navigation of the challenging biology curriculum. She is the Director of an NIH MARC U-STAR program to prepare students for PhD programs who are from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical research. The program has 16 students; 8 juniors and 8 seniors. Entering our 5th year, our graduates attend PhD programs at U. Wisconsin, Penn State University, Cornell, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, University of Pittsburth and Yale. Dr. Tanaka visited Liberia in the Spring of 2013 and she plans to return to lead faculty workshops in the development of science laboratory exercises for Cuttington undergraduates.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your experience with STEM outreach activities, and why such things are important to you?

Tanaka: I began graduate school (at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign) as a feminist so I entered with the idea that I would be sitting at the table, a table at which most of the seats had been reserved for men. As a graduate student, I worked on widening opportunities for female graduate students and faculty. I soon became aware that others were missing "at the table". By the time I was a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, I recognized a need to recruit and support students of color as well as women.
I have been involved in outreach activities with youth as young as 7th grade but my real focus now is undergraduate and graduate students. I believe that mentoring is more effective across small age and cultural gaps than big ones which is why I want to help college students mentor high school students and so on. I am reaching the stage in my life where I can mentor faculty!

Q: Can you tell us about the work that you will be doing at Cuttington University in Liberia?

Tanaka: I visited Cuttington University in Liberia last spring. The campus of the school is beautiful and the faculty that I met were very impressive and committed individuals. Many of them remained in Liberia through the violent decades that cost Liberia much of its infrastructure. For example, one faculty member told me that he was a student at Cuttington in the 1950s and at that time, all of the dormitories had washers and dryers. At present, after the civil conflict, the dorms do not have running water so that is what I encountered in terms of loss of infrastructure. The science labs have no equipment and the faculty are not prepared to develop modern laboratory exercises for the students. The President of Cuttington said he was most in need of faculty development - helping faculty gain the expertise to develop appropriate lab exercises in biology and chemistry for their students. He invited me to return in 2014 and run faculty workshops on laboratory exercises.

Q: From what you have learned thus far, what has surprised you the most about the STEM infrastructure in Liberia?

Tanaka: In addition to visiting Cuttington University, I visited the University of Liberia and talked with the President and his cabinet there. The challenges seem overwhelming. The science building there is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen with open air courtyards in the middle of the building but signs of neglect are everywhere. In my very na´ve opinion formed in 3 weeks in country, what is missing and most needed is a sense of ownership and stewardship of the resources. I mean to undertake relatively small tasks such as painting the exterior and interior of the buildings and classrooms or planting community gardens to provide fresh food. Perhaps a better word is self-empowerment. There is so much potential in Liberia and the country needs to build a STEM workforce but they need an infusion of STEM education at the faculty and administration level to "prime the pump" so to speak. USAID has contributed to the biology curriculum at UL and the school recruited a very talented Dean in Dr. Ophelia Weeks. The situation is changing rapidly but the mountain is tall. I would say, however, they are doing the right things.

Q: In the context of the U.S., and from your experience, is ethnic and gender diversity in STEM fields something that you believe has been improving over the years?

Tanaka: Improving yes but improving slowly. If you have not seen two recent publications, I commend them to you.

Q: As far as you can tell, in your opinion, is the STEM problem in the Liberia a problem of available resources or priorities?

Tanaka: Definitely resources. I cannot comment on the government as I am not Liberian nor do I know enough about President Sirleaf's priorities to make a comment. But resources and management of resources are key challenges. When I visited Cuttington, they had just received a shipment of books from an NGO. These were science and medical textbooks - all new or barely used and all recent. But there were thousands of books sitting in the boxes waiting to be unpacked. The head librarian was carefully logging each and every book with the intent to track it while the students who were being taught without books could only study in the library. So even once resources are allocated, it is important to think through the issues of deployment of the resources. For me as I think about faculty development, I have to remember that the university does not have 24 hr electricity and so in order to do simple molecular biology experiments, we would need a 24 hr generator to maintain a -20 degree C freezer for the enzymes. And if we want to keep bacterial cultures for cloning, their storage would require -80 degree C freezer. So deploying resources is as important as having access to them.

Q: What or who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Tanaka: I can't point to anyone. I like the process of solving problems and creating new knowledge. For me the biggest thrill is to see something no one before has seen.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)