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Unraveling the Life of a Student With Anna Ampaw

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Anna Ampaw is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ottawa and her research targets organic synthesis. She synthesizes small molecules that will facilitate in preventing ice damage during the cryopreservation of different cell types. She is also an Organic Chemistry and General Chemistry Instructor for The Princeton Review where she helps prepare students to write the chemistry section of the MCAT. I sat down with Anna and asked her to walk me through her academic journey through a series of questions starting with her upbringing, background, and how she got into the field of Chemistry.

“My name is Anna Ampaw and I was born here in Canada, in Nova Scotia. Specifically, I lived in Halifax, for the first five years of my life and then my family moved to Ontario. We've lived in the most random places. From Halifax, we moved to Perth, and then from there, we moved to Kitchener. And then from Kitchener, we moved here to Ottawa. So it's been a little bit of a journey. I am Canadian, but my background is Ghanaian. I wasn't born there, but I've traveled there before and it's a beautiful place. Once COVID dies down hopefully by next summer, I'll be able to travel there again. Growing up, it was just my sister and I. She's older than me by two years. And growing up, I just kind of followed everything she did, which is probably why I'm in science today.”

Anna mentioned that she completed her master's degree in Halifax after completing her bachelor's in Ottawa. With that being said, I wondered and asked Anna if studying abroad impacted her development as a student and how it felt to transition to a different city throughout her academic journey.

“When I went back to Halifax, my parents weren't with me as they were in Ontario. Moving back to Halifax was good because I was able to see my old neighborhood that I grew up in, and being there, away from family actually helped me to stay focused during my master's. Not that I'm not focused now, but I was really good at time management now that I look back… I guess because I lived on my own, and my only focus was to finish my masters. Luckily, I ended up finishing my masters in a year and a half… I wrote my thesis and even published a paper all within that time. So, I would say living by myself and being there by myself really helped me to stay focused.”

Being away from home can sometimes truly help with keeping yourself focused on one goal, it provides you with the chance to take control of your own life and navigate your own way in your personal and academic decisions. Anna is currently completing a doctorate degree in chemistry at the University of Ottawa. I asked her to elaborate a bit more about what motivated her to pursue a chemistry degree.

“So, pursuing chemistry wasn't actually my first choice. My first choice was to go into dentistry. But after several tries, I didn't get in. So I decided to pursue the chemistry route, all the way! Initially, I went into a master's in chemistry solely to better my chances to get into dental school. And I chose chemistry because I always had an interest in it during undergrad, and I was good at it too. I honestly didn’t really have any future goals in terms of how I would use my chemistry graduate degree at first. But, after I came to the realization that I wasn't going to dental school, I started focusing on pursuing chemistry to the fullest. So initially, I wanted to stop at a master but after I graduated, I couldn't really find a job that I thought I would like because a lot of the jobs were entry-level, lab technician jobs and I didn't really know if I wanted to go in that direction. So I remember one day meeting up with one of my previous co-op supervisors, which is now my current supervisor, and he was talking to me about doing a Ph.D., and how he had room in his lab. I was already familiar with his research just because I did COOP there. After the conversation, I went home, talked to my parents about it, and I decided to do a Ph.D.”

After breaking down why she chose this path and this field, I asked Anna to explain her research in-depth.

“For my research project, what we're doing is we're synthesizing small molecules that will prevent ice damage during cryopreservation. Cryopreservation is the process where you preserve living cells or tissues or organs under very cold temperatures. So normally in the -200 degrees kind of temperature range. And at that temperature, ice crystals form. It’s been observed that when the ice crystals grow, they end up damaging the living cells or the organs or the tissues. So we're trying to prevent that damage by making small organic molecules that will prevent the growth of ice crystals, therefore leaving more viable cells and tissues after they are thawed.

There is currently a shortage of blood for donation and Canadian Blood Services is always trying to encourage people to donate blood. Typically when you donate blood, they don't just use your donation right away, but they want to preserve it for a long period of time. If you want to preserve the blood for a week or two to three days, then you can keep it at refrigerator temperature. However, if you want to go for longer periods of time, you're going to have to preserve it at low sub-zero temperatures. This stops the different metabolic processes from occurring, which is pretty much putting its life on hold.”

Anna made it very clear that she is very passionate about research and is currently knee-deep in her own research. To dedicate that much time and effort to one area of study can only be done when the person is extremely dedicated to the research they are conducting. With that being said, I asked Anna what she thought the role of research was in education.

“ I feel like research has a huge role in education. I feel like there would be no education if there wasn't research because education started with research, and for education to grow, for the field of knowledge to grow, you're going to need research. You're going to need to keep on finding out new information. Education is always evolving and we don't want to get stuck in this cycle where we're just continuously regurgitating things that have already been found. We always want to know, we always want to learn new things, about different fields. I feel like research allows that, it allows education to grow.”

After thoroughly explaining her research and keeping in mind that Anna has spent many years as a graduate student, I decided to ask her what her favorite part about being a graduate student was for her.

“The fact that I can create my own schedule, and I can design my own, experiments which allow me to have full control. In grad school, your supervisor gives you a general topic and you're able to run with it in whatever direction you please. I really liked doing independent studies. Even during undergrad, I always found that I was teaching myself different things and I would always teach myself rather than go to class, not saying that class isn't valuable but I just learned better by teaching myself. And so that's what grad school is all about pretty much. You don't really have anyone telling you to learn, right? You don't really have anyone forcing you to read papers, forcing you to read the literature, forcing you to gain knowledge in your field. It's just you doing it yourself. I just like the fact that I have control over the research that I'm doing. I have control over the experiments I want to do. Overall, it's a great experience!”

Being able to control your own schedule and take control of your interests is truly one of the greatest things about being a graduate student. During her time as a graduate student, Anna volunteered in the medical field with global medical brigades and in the field of education as a mentor, and as a community outreach volunteer. I asked Anna how important a role these experiences had on her development as a student, and why should other students be similarly involved in their community.

“I would say that volunteering, especially within your community is very important. Take the global brigades, for example, I did that when I was still very passionate about going to dental school. So when wanted to be a dentist, I found it as a good opportunity to kind of live the life that a dentist would live without actually being a dentist. So I kind of got a taste of the field that I wanted to enter into. It was a really good experience and also, you're able to give back to your community, as well. We went to Honduras, which is a third world country, so they don't really have a lot of resources over there. So even just seeing the kids and just seeing the joy that they have, even with the little that they have, was also very encouraging. And even just talking to them about or passing on the knowledge that we have just the simple knowledge about how to take care of your teeth, how to take care of your body, educating them and providing that kind of education that they don't have access to, I found to be very fulfilling. So yeah, I would say that giving back to the community is really good in the sense that, education is meant to be passed along, knowledge is meant to be passed along. If you have the opportunity to pass on knowledge within your community, I feel like that's what you're supposed to do. Whenever you learn something. It shouldn't just stay with you. It should be passed on.”

Anna made an excellent point in regards to knowledge and how it is our duty to pass it on to the next generation and to each other. I thank Anna for sharing her brilliant thoughts and perspectives with me and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.

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