I was delighted to speak with chemist Dr Anna Ampaw for Empowerment, a conversation that dives into her non-linear journey to present day. We start by discussing her first career goals which included law enforcement, entertainment, then dentistry. After her undergraduate degree in Biopharmaceutical Sciences, however, she pivoted towards a career in research. At present, Dr Ampaw is a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto working within medicinal chemistry. Specifically, she is investigating therapeutic targets for fibrolamellar carcinoma, a rare type of liver cancer that typically occurs in adolescents. Dr Ampaw is also passionate about empowering women in STEM, with a particular focus on women from and living on the African continent. Through her non-profit Empowering Female Minds in STEM, Dr Ampaw aims to build a strong community through conferences, boot-camps, and other collaborative initiatives that support African women in STEM at the undergraduate and graduate levels. You’ll hear and feel Dr Ampaw’s passion for empowering the next generation of scientists throughout our conversation as she reflects on her own academic journey to date.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Anna Ampaw: Don't be afraid to pivot; just because you had one idea in mind and it didn't go your way doesn't mean that you're going towards failure.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we will be chatting with Dr Anna Ampaw, a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto. She previously completed her Bachelor's in Biopharmaceutical Science at the University of Ottawa, her Master's in Chemistry at Dalhousie University, and her PhD in Chemistry at the University of Ottawa. Dr Ampaw is also the founder and executive director for the non-profit Empowering Female Minds in STEM (EFeMS). I am super excited to chat with Dr Ampaw today about her ongoing studies in cancer research and to learn more about her non-profit, but let's start from the very beginning—Dr Ampaw, what's your story?
AA: First of all, I just wanna say thank you so much, Dr Bashir, for having me on here. Very excited to share my story and a little bit about myself.
We'll start with when I was younger and work up to where I am now. When I was younger, I was one of those kids that had no idea what I wanted to do. There's a lot of people that, you know, they're born and they automatically know what it is they wanna do for the rest of their life, but as for me, I was bouncing between careers. First, I wanted to be a lawyer, then I wanted to be a policewoman, then I wanted to be a singer, then I wanted to be a back-up dancer; meanwhile I can't do either <laugh>, but it was a dream of mine.
I just found a lot of things very interesting when I was younger. Going through school, I was always a really good student, so [I] always got good grades. I think I owe that to having an older sister who I looked up to quite a [bit]. We were only two years apart and every time she would learn something, I would wanna learn something. Whenever she would read, or when she learned to read rather, I learned to read, so I learned to read at a very early age, at about two years old. I could go through books after books after books, and because of that, I was pushed ahead in Grade 1 to Grade 3. I skipped Grade 2 because I was so ahead of the class; when my sister would do her homework, I would do her homework with her <laugh>, and so going through school I never really had a tough time doing different subjects. The one thing that I would say was challenging was deciding what I wanted to do with my life.
AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.
AA: Going through high school, I did pick up an interest for science and I thought science was very interesting. I was very curious about things when it came to science and in terms of which subject I did the best in, it was chemistry. Chemistry was something that always came easy to me, and I found it interesting as well. After I finished high school, that's when you had to kind of decide, 'Okay, what university are you going to? What program do you wanna do?' Because this is gonna prepare you for your whole life <chuckle>. I still, at that point, didn't know what I wanted to do. [I] was discussing it with my parents and you know African parents: 'Oh, why don't you be a doctor? Why don't you be a lawyer, engineer?' <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh> And you were like, 'No. No, thank you'?
AA: Doctor was definitely a 'no' for me, just because of the lifestyle. I was not cut out for that. It's not me. But my mom suggested a dentist 'cause she was like, 'It's like a doctor; you'll get the doctor title,' 'cause you know, titles <laugh>.
AB: <Humorous> That's all they want!
AA: Of course! They wanna say, you know, 'My daughter is a doctor' <laugh>, so you'll get the doctor title [as a dentist], but it's generally a 9-5 where you have your own practice and you're not working overtime. I shadowed a dentist during high school, saw what they did and I was like, 'You know what? I can maybe see myself doing that,' so I went into undergrad thinking that I was going to be a dentist and did everything that I could do to prepare myself for dental school. Got really good grades, I even did the DAT—that's the entry test, like the MCAT for dental school.
AA: So, did the DAT, I scored fairly well on that and made sure I got good grades and everything. My last year in undergrad, that's when I applied to dental school, and I applied to several schools in Canada, but I got no interviews, no acceptance, nothing; just pure rejection. And from that, that's when I had to reevaluate because you have this idea in your mind of what you're gonna be and your path after undergrad and then it doesn't happen, so you sit there and you're like, 'Okay, well what am I gonna do now?'
AB: <Sympathetic> Yeah.
AA: After undergrad, I kind of worked a little... Actually no, sorry, after undergrad I didn't work. I didn't find a job in my field, nothing, then randomly talking to an uncle and he's like, 'Well, why don't you just do your Master's in a subject you like that will prepare you or better your chances of getting to dental school?' I knew I liked chemistry so I went and did a Master's in Chemistry and, during that time, that was probably my first time doing hands-on research and having my own research project. In undergrad, you know, you would do research here and there, but that was my first time actually researching something. That's when my interest started to grow because I didn't know there was a whole world of researchers out there that could choose something that they found interesting and build a career out of just researching that one thing. I never knew about that at all.
Going into [my] Master's was a huge learning curve, for sure. I didn't know anyone that was doing a Master's in a science, didn't have anyone to discuss, 'How do I approach this? What do I even expect out of graduate school?' I kind of went in completely blind. Luckily, within my group, I had some people to help and support me along the way, and I ended up graduating [with] my Master's.
I still wanted to be a dentist at that time, so I did apply again, but I told myself this would be my last time applying. I applied to all the schools that I could, I did the DAT again, I scored really, really well, but again, I did not get accepted or anything, so all of those doors were closed. That was very heartbreaking for me because even though research was interesting, I didn't see a future for myself in research.
After my Master's, I just didn't really know what to do, especially with a Master's degree in Chemistry because, again, I didn't know anyone who did graduate school in a science. Like, what do you even do with a Master's in Chemistry? I ended up picking up odd jobs here and there. I taught piano for a while. I tutored. That was until I met up with one of my old professors that taught me in undergrad. [We] had a conversation; he had an opening in his lab and he invited me to do a PhD. At that point, I was like, 'Well, not really doing anything, so why not just do more education?' <Laugh> So, it was when I started my PhD when I actually started to appreciate research, appreciate chemistry, and just really know that I'm here for a reason, and my path directed me [to] this place for a reason. Ever since that I've just been doing research in the field that I'm in <chuckle>.
AB: I'm wondering what [your] familial response was. Families can be so, so supportive in those moments when you're feeling a little distraught and you haven't gotten into the schools that you wanted to get into, [in your case], for your dentistry programs. What was the family response to those situations?
AA: Yeah, my family was always very supportive.
AA: Yeah, very supportive of anything that I did. Even though, initially, it was like, 'Oh, why don't you be a doctor or a dentist?' that wasn't because they truly wanted me to be a doctor or a dentist, but it's just because they knew that I liked science, and in their mind, if you like science, you're a doctor. Back in their day and the background that they're [from], there's not a lot of people that do just research in a specific science or are researchers, so I think it was that lack of knowledge that you can create a career out of being a researcher. When I did decide to go on that path, they were very, very supportive.
AB: Yay, I'm so happy to hear that. And I imagine they're excited about the work that you're doing now because it is so meaningful, in the space of cancer research, if I remember correctly. Can we talk a little bit more about that work that you're doing?
AA: Yeah, definitely. I actually just entered this field. My PhD was slightly different. It was still chemistry, but I'm now in more of the medicinal chemistry space and that's something that I'm really, really interested in. The one reason why I like medicinal chemistry is because it's still chemistry and you're still applying your chemistry knowledge, but it's just a different application. Now, you're using all the knowledge that you've gathered—going through a Master's and studying different types of chemistry—you're now putting it together to make therapeutics for different diseases and different cancers. That's exactly what I'm doing in my research now, where we're finding novel therapeutics for rare cancers, and one of the main cancers that we're looking at is fibrolamellar carcinoma. This is a rare type of liver cancer that typically occurs in adolescents that are fairly young. With this cancer, there's currently no therapeutics and it has a really poor response to chemotherapy as well. The only kind of treatment is liver resection, so getting the tumor removed, but even with that the cancer still reoccurs; it has a very high recurrence rate. Right now, we're looking into finding different ways to target that cancer, and there's been a lot of research in this field over the past few years. It's been found that there is a driver for this cancer, which is a specific type of mutation that fuses two proteins together. Because of that discovery and because it's been kind of proven that this is the driver of the cancer, we're now trying to target that protein with small molecules and see if we can stop the progression of the cancer by doing that.
AB: That's so exciting and so meaningful. Another part of your world that's also very meaningful is in the space of outreach.
AB: What is the origin story behind Empowering Female Minds in STEM?
AA: EFeMS is like my baby. It's like my child <laugh>—
AA: —that I really just pride in. I started this non-profit organization in 2020 and I started it in the midst of the pandemic when things were shut down. Because I was doing my PhD and we do hands-on research, I couldn't go into the lab as much, so that's when I was able to think about other things that are meaningful to me, other things that I would love to do with my life. One thing that I've always wanted to do is give back to my community. I feel like the experiences that I've been through, that you've been through, so many people can learn from it. It can make their lives a lot easier. Looking back at my story, like I said, when I was in my Master's, I didn't know anyone that looked like me that was in my Master's [program] or doing a Master's or doing graduate school in a science, and it made my journey so much harder because I had to learn everything on my own, even what it is to write a grant, what does that even mean? Why do you need a grant? Those kind of things that when you get higher and higher in graduate school, you just learn. I had to learn on my own how to write a good research paper, how to kind of frame a research project, even what to expect in grad school, the types of jobs that you can get, networking with people. I had to go out of my way and do it because I didn't have anyone that was ahead of me that could help me along the way.
So, with this organization, that's kind of what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to build a community, but specifically for African women that are on the continent of Africa. There are a lot of initiatives here for, you know, women of color in STEM and I'm part of a bunch of them and they've helped so much. But looking [at] the continent of Africa, you see that there's a lot of outreach programs to get women, or to get girls rather, interested in STEM, which is amazing because I think more girls should enter STEM, but once they do and they're at the undergrad level or the graduate level, who's there to help them or what's there to push them along the way or even mentor them to show them different job opportunities? There's not a lot out there, so even though I don't live in Africa and I live in North America, I [like] being able to cultivate this community and bring people from their community to either mentor them or have scholarships that can help support their research, have conferences that they can all come to and present their research and network with each other and find out, 'Okay, what is this other STEMinist doing in their lab? Can we maybe collaborate? Can we grow our research project together?' Those things I love seeing, and I love seeing Black women help other Black women. Pretty much the main point is just to build a community and to do all these different initiatives that can really support African women at the undergrad and the graduate level to thrive in STEM.
AB: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. I'm wondering if there are any upcoming events that our listeners might be able to attend in the near future.
AA: Definitely! We have this one event and this is, I would say, our major event that we do every single year—when I say every year I mean since last year since we're still new—it's happening this November in Accra, Ghana, November 17th to 19th, and it's a boot camp. We call it the FeMS Boot Camp, the Female Minds in STEM Boot Camp, and it's gonna be amazing. Last year was amazing, this year is gonna be absolutely amazing. We have different workshops and all of these workshops are professional development workshops that we do. These are things that you can't learn in school, but we're having professionals come in and teach all of these skills that are so useful to different women in STEM to get jobs [and] to be competitive in the job market. For example, one of the workshops that we have is social entrepreneurship, and I think that's where STEM is moving, because all of these discoveries that are happening in the lab could turn into social enterprises, into businesses, into things that can get funding. We're trying to show that all of these research ideas that you're doing, you can generate income from there, [and] you can make it into a business. That workshop will be for that specifically. We have another workshop on financial literacy too: once you're making that money, once you make it big, what do you do with it? <Laugh> Because everyone's like, 'Oh I wanna make money.' Okay, great, but you need to treat your money well so that you can keep on making money in the future.
We thought that was something that was really important, so we're having a workshop for that. We're also having an Intro to Coding Workshop. Coding is something that is taking over the world, right? And the tech space is just expanding and growing, so any technical skill that you can get, any skill that you can learn in terms of how to code, that would be useful in the job market, we have a workshop for that.
Our last workshop, we're having a career coach come in. She's gonna come in and share the different things that you can do do with a PhD, because the one thing that I've realized since I've graduated is that the skills that you learn in your PhD are so transferable: you have your writing skills—you wrote a whole thesis, you know how to write by the end of that. You have presentation skills, speaking skills, because you've done a ton of presentations during your PhD. You have management skills, project management—you've crafted your whole research project. All of these skills are transferable, so we're having a coach come in and display that and show that all of these things that you learned during your PhD, here are the different things that you can do with it. That's one major thing that we also wanted to deliver.
AB: I'm so impressed! I don't know if you could tell as I was listening to you, I was like 'Yeah, she thought of everything!' <Laugh> Every single vantage point that you could have, you have it in this program. I'm excited to see what ends up happening in November. November, this year, in Accra.
I'm wondering if you'd be able to also talk about your own movement in life. I know you have Ghanaian roots, but you've spent a considerable amount of time in Canada, including your entire tertiary education—through undergrad, doing your Masters and your PhD, and now doing your postdoc—and you've hopped around among a number of Canadian cities, including Ottawa, Halifax, and now you're in Toronto. For people who don't maybe know that much about Canada, I'm wondering if you could speak to the environment of being in all those different cities and the different vibes that you would get, be it attending graduate school or undergrad in all of these different places. What were your experiences like?
AA: Yeah, so I'd say that my experiences everywhere were very good. All of these cities are different for sure, but they're all very beautiful. I started in... Well, I didn't start, but I've been to Halifax... I was actually born there. Fun fact!
AB: Were you? That's cool! So you were coming home in a sense!
AA: Exactly, so that was actually very nice because I got to see my childhood home when I was in Halifax too. One of my neighbors was still living there and she remembered me. It was really cool. Halifax is a beautiful city, absolutely beautiful. If you're into nature, you will love Halifax because there's trees everywhere, you're right by the water, a lot of hiking trails, and the winters aren't that bad, <chuckle>, which is nice. The only thing is I like the heat, and the summers aren't that warm, so it's that mild-ish kind of temperature. But Halifax is beautiful. It's definitely a university city, so there's about three to four universities and colleges. I think there's four universities and colleges in the city of Halifax. But in terms of, you know, advancing your career, what I found when I was there was there weren't a lot of opportunities, especially in science, unless you're doing marine science or even agricultural science. I think those two you can find a lot of work in Halifax, but the physical sciences, there's not a lot of opportunities, so even though my Master's was great, I learned a lot, and I liked the research I was doing, I was definitely excited to move back home to Ottawa <laugh>.
AB: And that's where your parents were based at the time as well?
AA: Exactly, yeah. And my family is still there. So, we can talk about Ottawa now! Ottawa, I would say, is definitely bigger than Halifax, more diverse than Halifax, but I wouldn't call it a big city. I realized that when I moved to Toronto, but we'll get to Toronto! <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh>, I'm looking forward to that.
AA: Yeah! <Laugh> But Ottawa is, again, a beautiful city. It's very clean. That's the one thing I've also noticed ever since moving to Toronto—no shade—it's very clean. And it's a government city, so a lot of people that live there have government jobs. A lot of my friends, after undergrad, went straight into the government, and it's something common that you do when you live in Ottawa. Career-wise, I would say that if you're into policy, if you're into politics, anything associated with the government, then Ottawa is the place to be. But in terms of entrepreneurship, business, things like that, I would say that Ottawa is limiting, for sure. It definitely depends what you're into. In terms of city life and everything and the standard of living, Ottawa's great. And if you speak French too, you'll get by perfectly fine because it's a bilingual city, so a lot of people that live there, they will speak French and English.
Moving on to Toronto now; I do live in Mississauga, so it's in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), but it's not Downtown Toronto.
Toronto's interesting... <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh> I feel like you have a lot to say.
AA: <Laugh> The thing is I actually love it here. I do. And I can see myself living here for a long time. Probably not downtown though. Downtown is too much for me.
AB: Yeah, it's overwhelming.
AA: It really is. But anywhere in the GTA, the outskirts, I could see myself living [there], just because I do like big cities; there's a lot more things to do and there's a lot more opportunities, you know? That's the one thing I do like about it. The one thing I really noticed is that the pace of life here is on steroids <laugh> compared to Ottawa. It's on mega steroids compared to Halifax, and then it's on steroids compared to Ottawa. Halifax way of living, what I find is that everyone is just comfortable, you know? They have their job, their 9-5, they have their house in the country, and everyone is just comfortable with life, which is not a bad thing at all. Like, I am not hating, that's amazing. It's an amazing way to live. Ottawa is a step above, where everyone is comfortable, but they're also trying to grind and go to the next thing. Toronto, everyone's on the grind. <Laugh>, everyone is trying to be the next something. Even going from a lab in Ottawa to a lab in Toronto, I was looking at the way people work. I was like, 'I need to step it up.' <Laugh> It definitely challenges me and it motivates me, which is why I like it.
AB: Mm-Hmm <Affirmative>.
AA: It's also expensive over here, like, hella expensive.
AB: Yeah! Especially coming from, again, Halifax and then Ottawa, you almost described just the incremental increase of the cost of living.
AA: Oh my goodness. Like, rent is crazy here. That's another story for another day. <Chuckle> But I do like Toronto. It's a great city. A lot of things to do, a lot of opportunities.
AB: You mentioned the three or four schools that are here in Halifax. There are a few more bigger schools in Ottawa compared to Halifax, and then in Toronto, you just have this massive expansion of possibilities—
AA: <Laugh> Exactly.
AB: —because one university has these massive standalone branches, where U of T is not just U of T St George, it's Mississauga, it's Scarborough. There are so many different places where you can go, and science is obviously one of their priorities, so I think you found a good home for the next little while.
AA: Oh yes, definitely. I love it here.
AB: Yeah. Do you have an idea of what's next for you in terms of your professional path?
AA: To be honest, I change every day. <Laugh> Sometimes I think academia will be a great path for me and I love teaching. I have a curious mind and I feel like, in academia, you have the freedom to follow your curiosity in terms of research. But then at the same time, I look at my bank account, <laugh>, I'm like, 'Industry is calling me!' <Laugh>.
AB: Yup, I get that! <Laugh>
AA: So, there's that. And like I said, with the skills that you learned in PhD, there's endless possibilities of things that you can do, so I've even been exploring other avenues where I can use these skills that aren't directly at the lab bench. I'm not doing research at the lab bench, but I'm using these skills to either communicate to other professionals and different kind of occupations like that, so I'm trying to find where I would fit in terms of my interests and the things I like doing and the skill-set that I have. So yeah, TBD! <Chuckle>
AB: That's a perfectly acceptable answer! One of the questions that I really love asking my guests has to do with finding joy in things outside of work as well. And I'm wondering if you'd be willing to share something that brings you a lot of joy that's not necessarily at the lab bench or at your computer, something that just makes you go, 'I look forward to doing this when I finish up in the lab at 5:30 today.'
AA: Yeah, for me it would be hanging out with friends. I really enjoy people's company, even though I claim to be an introvert and I love spending time with myself, I also do love sitting down with people, having good conversations, you know? And I think the reason why I really value hangouts with friends is because during my PhD, like, you're just constantly working, and [there were] a lot of things I couldn't go to because I was busy in the lab. I missed events and stuff like that. Now, when I have time, I really try to catch up with some of the friends I have, I hang out with them and [do] fun things. I just like doing random adventures, going bike riding to a random place or trying out a new hobby or something like that. I just like to have fun and try and do things.
AB: One of the things that I've learned about you over the last little while that we've been speaking is how good you are at the pivot: 'Okay, this isn't really working, let's pivot and still find a lot of promise in this path,' so I'm wondering, for my last question of the day, if you would grace me with your words of wisdom to someone who's at the precipice of that pivot. 'I don't know what's coming next, but all I have to do is remember this.'
AA: Yeah, so it's actually very interesting that you said that because that's something that I really like emphasizing. Don't be afraid to pivot; just because you had one idea in mind and it didn't go your way doesn't mean that you're going towards failure. And if you're in research, I'm sure you've had to pivot countless times. You do an experiment [and] it doesn't work out. You have to now reevaluate. That's kind of the constant theme in research. One thing I would say about pivoting would just be don't be afraid to try something different or to do something that's not ideal or wasn't in your plans. Sometimes our plans don't work out, which is completely fine. In my story, I wanted to be a dentist, but now that I look back, I don't wanna be a dentist. I'm very content with the path that I took, and that was from a pivot, you know? Sometimes, we think that we know what we want, we think that we know what the next step is for us, and we have our life all planned out, but sometimes it's not like we planned, which is completely okay.
AB: That's a perfect way to end our conversation here today. Thank you so much, Dr Ampaw, for gracing me with your words of wisdom and for sharing your story so authentically and candidly. Thank you so much.
AA: And thank you so much for having me. This was great.
Her Royal Science jingle