“You are in competition with nobody but yourself so do not let anyone stress you out.” Those are the words of Danielle Twum, a cancer immunologist from Ghana, West Africa, who has just been celebrated in the U.S. for her contributions to science.
Smithsonian has been commemorating Women’s History Month by honoring over a hundred women who are changing lives, and Twum is one of them. This month, the Smithsonian unveiled a historic exhibit, “#IfThenSheCan — The Exhibit,” featuring 120 life-size 3D statues of women who have excelled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The museum announced that from March 5 to 27, the exhibit will be on display at the Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C. and in select Smithsonian museums. The exhibit is the largest collection of women statues ever assembled, according to the museum.
Ghana’s Twum is definitely proud to be a part of the exhibit. She moved to the United States in 2007 and received her B.A. in Biology from Vassar College where she studied the effects of climate change on coral bleaching. Twum earned her Ph.D. in Cancer Immunology from the University at Buffalo where she studied the immunology of breast cancer metastasis.
A field applications scientist whose mission is to make science fun for everyone, Twum started research in college studying coral bleaching in sea anemones but shifted to cancer research because she lost an uncle to brain cancer when he was in his mid-30s.
“I always wanted to understand the disease that killed him,” Twum told TechSech.co in an interview. “He and I shared a birthday. It was because of Uncle Kofi that I applied to Roswell Park for their summer program and I was admitted into their doctoral program.”
In 2017 while a graduate student at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Twum received the prestigious Emerging Scholars Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Two years prior to that, she had delivered a talk at the TEDxBuffalo 2015 as a third-year pre-doctoral candidate at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. She gave a talk entitled ‘Guardians of Your Inner Galaxy’.
The Ghanaian scientist would later start working as a field applications scientist at a startup. “This means that I run experiments on the company’s system at customer sites and troubleshoot whatever snag I might have hit during an outside experiment on our systems in-house,” she explained to TechSech.co in 2020. “One of the best parts of my job is that there is no typical day. This teaches me to be flexible and always ready for whatever comes my way.”
“My days are also interspersed with meeting calls with researchers interested in our system. For me, watching our product get better with time and knowing that I have contributed to the production process is rewarding to me,” she said.
It is said that who you learn from matters. Mentorship is essential in the professional and personal development of almost everyone. Twum has had people behind the scenes nurturing her potential and keeping her on track while growing. Besides her family and community encouraging her, she has had teachers and other mentors pushed her to where she is today.
“My mentors have been crucial. My chemistry teacher from Senior High school, Mrs. Opare, was the first person to introduce me to scientific communication unofficially. She would explain chemical reactions using examples from household incidents. It was in Prof. Jodi Schwarz’s lab that I started conducting research, studying coral bleaching in sea anemones. Jodi pushed me to apply to Roswell Park’s summer research program and the rest is history.”
Today, Twum, as an If/Then ambassador with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is helping to increase the visibility of women in STEM as role models for young girls. She has been doing this through social media, speaking engagements, and television appearances. On her personal social media, she said she is trying to normalize the image of a Black scientist “with an undercut and funky lipstick and a killer fashion sense.”
“I want young black girls to know that being a scientist does not mean you have to fit into a mold, it means you get to make your own mold.”
The cancer immunologist is grateful that she has been rewarded for her hard work. Commenting on being among the women trailblazers celebrated in the Smithsonian exhibit, the Ghanaian scientist said: “I did not go into STEM to become a role model but knowing that my journey will inspire the next generation of scientists is an honor I do not take lightly, thank you.”
If Twum is not working, she is finding the best Indian and Korean food or having a dance party to some old-school Kpop.