Dr. Anna Ampaw on how her identity shaped her journey to success
UTM Postdoctoral Fellow shares how faith and community empowered her through her graduate school experience.
“Do your best and let God do the rest,” said Dr. Anna Ampaw. Her life motto perfectly encompasses her journey from a young, faithful Ghanian-Canadian girl to a woman working through her Postdoctoral Fellowship in medicinal chemistry at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM).
Born in Nova Scotia to Ransford Ampaw, an MBA graduate of Dalhousie University who immigrated from Ghana, and Eva Ampaw, a self-taught seamstress with her own clothing line, Dr. Ampaw and her sister were instilled with strong Ghanaian-Christian values that she has carried throughout her academic career.
Dr. Ampaw completed her master’s of chemistry at Dalhousie University, where she researched inhibiting β-phosphoglucomutase, a protein that converts glucose-1-phosphate to glucose-6-phosphate. Since this mechanism was understudied, her approach was to design inhibitors to trap the enzyme in its transition state and observe how it undergoes the mechanism.
She then received her PhD in chemistry at the University of Ottawa focusing her research on carbohydrate-based cryoprotectants for blood’s cryopreservation—the preservation of biological constructs by bringing them to low temperatures. By synthesizing small molecule carbohydrates that prevent ice damage in blood, they could tackle the issue of cell death during cryopreservation, thus increasing the yield of viable blood cells after freezing.
While graduate school was not easy, Dr. Ampaw attributes many life-changing lessons to her time there. She refers to herself as a “slow learner,” emphasizing that her results came from the work and effort that she put into her studies. Although it took her longer to understand concepts, she recognized that it was okay and took the time she needed to visualize them, eventually retaining them. Originally a shy student who didn’t like public speaking, Dr. Ampaw was forced to attend conferences and present her research. This instilled her with confidence, sharpening her communication skills and opening many doors in her career. Though undecided on her end goal, she is excited to explore the countless opportunities that graduate school has afforded her.
Her focus on science as a humanitarian aid is exemplified with her current Postdoctoral Fellowship in Medicinal Chemistry at UTM. “One thing that I really liked about Patrick Gunning’s lab, is his integration of academia with industry,” she explains.
With many bright minds in academia, there is an apparent disconnect between the new lab discoveries and getting them onto the market. Dr. Ampaw appreciates that Dr. Gunning tries to facilitate and speed up that process via start-ups as well as through the new Center for Medicinal Chemistry building at UTM scheduled to open in the summer of 2023. “I like the fact that with the Gunning Lab, we take our knowledge and apply it to health by making molecules to inhibit different proteins that cause cancers.,” adds Dr. Ampaw.
Dr. Ampaw’s appreciation of practical science stems from her strong Christian faith and trust in knowing she is where she belongs. This helped her navigate through her experiences as a Black woman in graduate school.
While she initially hoped to work in dentistry, pursuing her PhD led her to discover her true passion for medicinal chemistry. After hearing the daily struggles of her friends who entered dentistry studies, Dr. Ampaw felt even more grateful for this shift in her career, realizing that dentistry was not for her.
Throughout her studies, Dr. Ampaw has been affiliated with several organizations, such as, the Canadian Blood Services and the Canadian Black Science Network—an organization launched in 2021 by U of T professors to provide a platform of support for Black students in the sciences. She also attends STEMNoire’s yearly conference that invites Black women in STEM to present their research and speak on professional development.
Participation in these communities was vital for Dr. Ampaw—as a Black woman in the sciences, she felt the absence of representation in her own academic career. Throughout her master’s and the majority of her doctorate, Dr. Ampaw was the only Black woman, which was often a source of struggle. Being the only one in her family to complete a master’s or PhD in Science, and not having other Black female peers to relate to her adversities, and the lack of resources and mentorship generated a feeling of loneliness. In her second and third year, she made an active effort to seek out a community with like-minded individuals with a similar background, mostly via social media. Through this effort, she connected with several Black women in STEM.
In 2020, Dr. Ampaw used her own experiences to create her own non-profit organization called Empowering Female Minds (EFeMS). With an abundance of initiatives in North America for graduate students in STEM that are minorities, she wanted to extend that same fortune to those in Africa by building a community amongst African women in STEM. EFeMS helps African scientists financially through scholarships and aims to host yearly conferences for students to present their research, most of which are focused on solving problems within their communities.
Through hard work, perseverance, and strong faith, Dr. Ampaw hopes to continue her research and find new ways to empower minority communities around the world.