Most of us know you as the elegant quiz mistress of the National Science and Math Quiz. Beyond that, who is Dr. Elsie Effah Kaufmann?

The ‘quiz mistress’ is just a small part of me. I’m a work in progress. I have had the opportunity to do many things in life, but I still see a big journey ahead. Every year, every day, I strive to be a little better than I used to be.

Tell us about your childhood and rise through the educational ranks.

I was born here in Accra, at the Korle-Bu Teaching hospital. My father retired as the Western regional director of education and my mother was a trained teacher. So, I grew up in a family that had education at heart. I was the eldest of four kids. I didn’t go to nursery school like most children do these days. My mother used to take me along with her to school. She says when she was teaching, I’d go and hide under her table. According to her I was a very good child—very quiet and not troublesome. She also says I used to write all the time; what I was scribbling, nobody really understood.

I finally started school in Class one at the Advanced Teacher Training College (ATTC) Demonstration School. We were in Winneba at the time. When I got to class three, my father was transferred to Koforidua as Assistant Headmaster of Ghana Secondary School, so we moved to Koforidua. There, I attended Nana Kwaku Boateng Experimental School. At Nana Kwaku Boateng Experimental School, I was skipped from one class to join my seniors of 2 years to write the Common Entrance Exam. You know, I’m from the old generation. It wasn’t easy. This was probably the most difficult thing I had ever done— catching up with my seniors, becoming accustomed with teachers wielding canes all the time, mentals… I wrote the Common Entrance Exam and passed. I got into St. Roses Secondary School, but my father refused to let me go at the tender age of 10. And so I had to go back and rewrite the Common Entrance Exam, eventually getting into Aburi Girls’ Secondary School. This was in 1981.

In my last year at Aburi Girls’, the headmistress, Mrs. Joyce Asibey nominated me for a programme. I was put in the School’s boneshaker and driven from Aburi to Accra to come and write an exam. It was at the West Africa Secondary School, near WAEC (in those days). The exam was already in session when I got there. It was a very interesting question as well.

“1986 has been declared the International year of peace. Write an essay on peace and international understanding”.

See, I still remember it? Shocking! I sat down and started writing. I knew I was late so I did my best. Afterwards, some people were selected to go for an interview before a panel. At the end of all of this I was selected to attend the United World College of the Atlantic in the UK. And that is how it happened: I got the opportunity to travel outside the country to continue my education on full-scholarship as a representative of Ghana. I went from 1986 to 1988. I was in Wales for my High School. I did the international Baccalaureate. From there, I actually wanted to come back to the University of Ghana. You know, when you are a good science student in Ghana, the expectation is that you pursue Medicine in the University, but here I was on a different path. I did apply to the University Of Ghana Medical School and got a provisional admission even without my results. Strange, but things like that happened at the time. But then, those were the days that the Universities in Ghana were on strike and I was confused as to what to do. An American friend advised that I go and study in America and after much counselling, some schools were recommended to me: Harvard University, Swarthmore University, University of Pennsylvania and others. I did not want to go to Harvard University because I knew one Ghanaian young man who was a big pain in the neck. But I was still thinking about Medical school so I looked up the programmes the other schools offered. I didn’t even know that in America you do not go straightaway to Medical school. When I realized this, I just didn’t know what to do. Then I saw Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania talking about healthcare… You know, it sounded like something a medical person could do. That is the only programme I applied to do at the University of Pennsylvania. I was told I had to write the SATs a few days after. I didn’t even know what the exam was about. You know how people prepare for the SATs right? I didn’t have any strategy. When I got into the exam hall that was when I realized it was a multiple-choice type exam.

I’m telling you all these to let you know that some of these things were not up to me, that there was some divine intervention. Who would have guessed from my beginnings that I’d wind up where I did?

I’m telling you all these to let you know that some of these things were not up to me, that there was some divine intervention. Who would have guessed from my beginnings that I’d wind up where I did?

Anyway, I went to write the SAT over the weekend. It was at my school’s library. Our school was very special—it was a centre for the SATs—that is why they were able to let me in that quickly to write it. To cut long stories short, I was ultimately admitted to the University of Pennsylvania.

Why did you come back to Ghana after studying abroad?

I have three degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. I did all of my university education there—Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD. But before going to the United World College of the Atlantic one of the things they asked of you was to go, get the experience, return to your home country and make a difference. Many of us promised to do this, only a few followed through. So for me—I think it’s because of the training my father had given me at home— it was a matter of time when to do it. I could have come immediately after the United World Colleges to attend a university in Ghana. I didn’t do that. I went on to get a Bachelor’s degree. By that time, I had begun to see where I was going. In fact, most of my class mates went into medicine, but I fell in love with Bioengineering. My dad had been persistently asking about what I was going to do with my Bioengineering degree because there was nothing like that in Ghana at the time. If I was going to introduce something like this to Ghana, I’d better know everything there was to know about it. And that was what propelled me to keep going.

The question was why did I come back? I came back because I knew what I wanted to come back to do. I made a promise to come back and make a difference. I knew this was the way I could make the difference.

I came back because I knew what I wanted to come back to do. I made a promise to come back and make a difference. I knew this was the way I could make the difference.

You’ve made a difference indeed! How did you end up as the first head of the Biomedical Engineering Department?

Yes, I came back in 2001.

When I was ready to leave the US, I did the post-doc. I was actually at Rutgers University doing a post-doc when I decided that it was time to come home. It was a time of transition—after post-doc, you get a job and then you are stuck. It was a good time to come home. The problem was figuring out what you wanted to do and implementing it. I applied to different places– Noguchi, UCC and KNUST but I didn’t get a good response from them. And then, I applied to the University of Ghana.

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana at the time was Prof. Addae-Mensah. My father knew him so he contacted him and mentioned to him that he had a daughter who was an engineer and was ready to come home. Prof. Addae-Mensah was very excited and said that I should come, more so because he wanted to start engineering at the University of Ghana. That was just perfect, wasn’t it? I hadn’t even received an appointment letter, but was ready to come. It was when I came that the Registrar, Mr. Konu, gave me my appointment letter. The University of Ghana did very well. They recruited me, met me at the airport when I came to Ghana, brought me to campus, and gave me accommodation. I was part of a committee that had been established to put the proposal forward. The committee was chaired by the late Prof. Allotey, my mentor. And that’s how we started.

To become a lecturer at the University of Ghana you must be affiliated to a department. My application did not have any department specified so my CV, I hear, was going round campus from one department to the other. The Pro-Vice Chancellor, Prof. Amuzu, was in the Department of Physics, and on seeing my application and CV decided to host me. The most interesting thing is that from 1948, they had never had a full-time permanent female lecturer. They had had Prof. Aba Andam on sabbatical but not full-time. I was the first female to be appointed to the department of Physics at the University of Ghana in 2001.

And I have stayed in the university for 17 years. It has been challenging but also rewarding.

Dr. Elsie E. Kaufmann

Any regrets?

No regrets. It’s not been easy though. There were times we celebrated the [end] of a semester because just making it through a semester of a new programme was a major thing. There’s been a lot of pain, and a lot of sacrifices, but I don’t think there are any regrets.

It appears you were born to do the extraordinary: first, you were amongst three chosen to represent your Ghana abroad; you are the first female full-time permanent lecturer to be appointed to the department of Physics ; first head of the Biomedical engineering department, quiz mistress of the National Science and Math Quiz…how do you juggle all your responsibilities together?

It’s not easy at all. Sometimes I say that 24 hours a day is not enough. If God were to grant me a wish it will be to add maybe a few more hours to the day.

I am getting better with time. Prioritizing is key. The other thing is that I don’t say no to help. When I need help I will get it. One major source of help has been my mother. There were times that I wished that I could spend more time doing certain things, and I just can’t. I’ve been blessed. My children understand me even though I do get the stories.

Here’s a typical story: so one day I get home early, because I feel like going home earlier than usual. I get home and Davis, my second child, is at the door. She says to me, ‘What’s the matter, is something wrong? Did you actually find your way home in the light? Because you always come home late.’

We all laugh.

So yes, there are times when I wish I could do more. You know, spend more time with the family, but I’m not even sure they’d enjoy having me around.

Through all of these different phases of your life, how have you maintained your faith in God?

I have had too much happening in my life. Faith plays a very important role where I have reached in my journey. I am a planner—I dot the ‘i’s, cross the ‘t’s—and yet there are some things that are simply beyond me. I have experienced this for myself and so it’s not easy for me to discount the role of God in my life.

What’s your take on excellence?

When I think about excellence what I usually see is committing to do something, finding out about the requirements, satisfying that commitment, following through with it and then going forward to do something extra.

Ghanaians need to ditch mediocrity. I have observed that people take on responsibilities, looking for recognition, glory and remuneration, but never think about the work or the meaning of the commitment they have made. There are people who actually take on responsibility without bothering to find out what is required of them. And if you don’t even know what is required of you, how do you add on to make it excellent?

Excellence is committing to do something, finding out about the requirements, satisfying that commitment, following through with it and then going on to do something extra.

As one of the frontline champions of science education in Ghana, what’s your view on the issue of girl-child education and early marriages of girls in Ghana?

There’s a whole lot research that has been done that shows that when you have diversity in terms of gender and contribution to decision-making, you make better decisions and have better outcomes. It’s surprising then that we live in an environment where we can actually side-line a whole gender and expect to make better decisions. That doesn’t happen. We need to be doing a whole lot better.

In order to get to the point where you can actually contribute meaningfully to decision-making, you should have invested in yourself. This is the purpose of our education and life experiences. If we want our young women to be part of the development we are looking for as a country, we need to give them a chance to invest in themselves. The time of preparation is not a time for them to be getting married. It’s very important that we give our boys and our girls equal opportunities to invest in themselves so that they can help us make the right decisions and implement those decisions for the future.

NSMQ Mistress, Dr. Elsie E. Kaufmann

This is your twelfth year as quiz mistress for the National Science and Math Quiz. How has the experience been like?

It’s been a wonderful experience.

Each quiz question requires an incredible amount of time to prepare. Subject consultants set the questions. As chair of the moderation team I meet with these subject consultants, and we read every single question out, debating and deciding which ones are suitable and which ones are not.

Sometimes I reject questions and have them replaced. This is a yearlong activity. We have to check each question otherwise each time there’s a problem with a question, time is wasted—at least half an hour—to sort things out. You should be thinking about how much effort goes into making sure we do enough checks so that we don’t have these interruptions. Each question is very precious to me.

When I go and sit up there, my job is to bring every question to life. When I ask the question and the student takes the question seriously and answers correctly, it’s a source of great joy to me. On the other hand, when I see them taking the question lightly, it bothers me. Of course, there are other times I have great amusement from the kind of answers I receive.

But yes, it’s been a very rewarding experience.

Do you have mentors, and are you mentoring anybody?

I am mentoring a whole lot of people—from basic school through to junior high school, senior high school, university and my students who have graduated and left. Some of my own colleagues at the University of Ghana are my mentees.

More recently, I have been focusing on the junior high schoolers. I am working with the team that puts together the National Core Subjects Quiz.

Am I being mentored myself? Yes. I take mentorship very seriously. Sometimes we need ideas from elsewhere and so I have a number of mentors. Unfortunately, I am losing them one after the other. I first lost Emeritus Prof. Ebenezer Laing and Prof. Allotey at the beginning of the year. But I still have Prof. Osseo-Asare at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

You’ve won several awards, the latest being a 2018 Golden Torch Award at a Conference in Pittsburgh, USA. Again, you are the first female recipient of that award. What was it all about?

The Golden Torch Award is an award from the National Society of Black Engineers. This is an international association of engineers from around the world. The specific category was International Academic Leadership in recognition of my contribution to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education at the international level. It’s a significant award for engineers so I am very proud to have received that.

Dr. Elsie Effah Kaufman giving her acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Touch Awards.

Could you touch on some of the failures and challenges you have encountered in life?

I see each failure as an opportunity to grow, to expand and to get better. When you face failures, it is an opportunity to do something better. In our first Physics class at the University of Pennsylvania, the professor decided to put us to the test by giving us a diagnostic quiz. Out of three, the possible outcomes were zero, one, two and three, and I wound up with zero! That was a major failure for me. Learning from this experience, I restrategized and made it a point to go to every Physics class prepared because we had been promised there were more to come. From that time, I am proud to say I never scored zero again.

There are other failures I have had in life but I do not dwell on my failures very much.

What’s the secret behind the way you look and your colourful dress choices?

I don’t think I put a lot of effort into looking good. Yes, I do like colour. If I had the choice of choosing between something colourful and dull, I’d always choose colour. I don’t spend much time on make-up. My daughter Maia Maia is very much into make-up and I’m always scandalizing her. I only have two things in my make-up box—a black pencil I draw anywhere I feel like (sometimes I get it right, at other times I don’t), and a lipstick. But on the set of the National Science and Maths Quiz, they actually spend a lot of time on that make-up and sometimes I have to complain that it’s just too much.

I have been blessed with very good genes.

Where do you see yourself in engineering education in the next few years?

Personally, there’s a whole lot in store. I have several things coming up. As an academic, I do research. I have several exciting research projects currently ongoing. You can look out for my publications. I also want to progress professionally.

In terms of education, I think we are beginning to see some progress. Like I said, the expectations are increasing; people are no longer satisfied to come and sit here and get a certificate. They realize that you can have a certificate and not be able to do anything useful with it. I think the demand to have education that actually counts can be applied to make a difference. Once there’s a push we will all be required to work harder to make things move in that direction. I see great hope for our engineering students. You can no longer graduate as an engineer and just sit around doing nothing.

I am very hopeful.

What advice would you give our readers?

Strive for excellence. Be committed to the activities that you choose to do. Work hard. Hard work does not kill. Work hard. Find out where you can make impact and work really hard to make that impact. It’s not enough to talk about it or dream about it; it’s time to take action. Do it!

In addition to that, pray. There are some things that are out of our immediate control. Leave those ones to God, and take your responsibility seriously.

Strive for excellence!

The GNOMIC team met with Dr. Elsie Kaufmann in her office at the University of Ghana School of Engineering. FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Drs. Daniella Seyram Aflakpui, John Appery Turkson, Elsie Effah Kaufmann, Priscilla Kyei-Baffour, and Protia Nana Yaa Sintim

This interview was first published in the seventh issue of our magazine.