Andrews Akwasi Agbleke, who goes by Kwasi, has completed his postdoctoral work in the Kleckner Lab but continues to work closely with many MCB researchers as an imaging scientist at the Harvard Center for Biological Imaging (HCBI). His primary responsibility at HCBI is training Boston-area scientists to use state-of-the-art microscopes for their research projects.
Agbleke says he joined HCBI because he believes science is a multifaceted enterprise, requiring research personnel to have access to not only scientific equipment and supplies but also to expertise and support staff who can enable experiments.
“Each time someone comes with a sample, it’s exciting, because there is something new to learn from each model organism or system,” he says. This enthusiasm for making scientific imaging techniques more accessible has been a theme throughout most of his academic career.
Growing up in Denu in the Volta Region of Ghana, Agbleke was broadly interested in science and studied biochemistry and biomedical sciences as an undergraduate at the University of Ghana. Most life sciences professors in developing countries like Ghana tend to focus on applied life sciences, Agbleke says, but he was interested in fundamental questions about how things worked. He chose to attend graduate school abroad at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he studied chromosomal organization in Patrick Higgins’s lab and quickly realized the importance of imaging.
His grad school lab frequently used genetic assays for determining chromosome architecture in live cells. “We didn’t have a visual way of tracking how much the chromosome is actually rotating or twisting…so I became interested in microscopy that could visualize this phenomenon in a live cell,” he says.
Agbleke’s postdoctoral research continued in a similar vein. For two years, he worked in Ting Wu’s lab at Harvard Medical School, where he helped adapt the lab’s OligoPaints technology for use in live cell microscopy. The lab uses the OligoPaint technology for “fixed” biological samples, but Agbleke’s research focused on chromosomal behavior that cannot be seen in a static image or a dead cell.
After that, he took a second Harvard postdoc in the Kleckner Lab at MCB where he studied chromosome pairing interactions during X chromosome inactivation in differentiating mouse embryonic stem cells. This research led him to spend many hours at the HCBI working with their image analysis software. Agbleke worked briefly with Andrew Seeber’s group at the Harvard Center for Advanced Imaging where he studied chromatin mobility during DNA damage. When an imaging scientist position opened up at HCBI, Agbleke joined the team.
The HCBI is a vital hub for life sciences research at Harvard where researchers of all experience levels gather data on cell samples and tissues. Oftentimes, HCBI users are completely new to the equipment and image analysis techniques. Since joining the HCBI team, Agbleke has contributed to the new Optical Imaging Core at the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) in Allston,where he trains users from in the engineering and material science fields, as well as from the life sciences.
The HCBI team is developing a cloud-based system for image data analysis software that MCB researchers will be able to access remotely, from computers in their labs or even from home computers.
“We are here to support and help the Harvard community, so researchers should feel comfortable reaching out to us at any time” Agbleke says. “We are happy to discuss users’ experimental design, imaging, and reproducible results. Our goal is to facilitate their research, and reduce barriers to the imaging component of their work.”
“Kwasi has a strong background in cell biology, live cell imaging and image data analysis,” says HCBI Director of Imaging Douglas Richardson, who supervises Agbleke. “These are all rapidly growing areas of experimentation at the HCBI and Kwasi is already making an impact…He is now the lead trainer for many of our microscopes.”
“As much as we need to be experts in microscopy, we also need to be experts in customer service,” Richardson adds. “Kwasi brings an infectiously positive attitude to the HCBI, you hear his laugh from one end of the facility to the other many times a day. Everyone’s day is instantly better if they get to interact with Kwasi.”
While pursuing his academic career, Agbleke has dedicated significant effort to building scientific infrastructure and research support system in his home country of Ghana through his nonprofit the Sena Institute of Technology (SIT). He founded SIT in 2009 with the long-term goal of building capacity for basic research in Africa and funded the institute’s initial construction himself. “Global scientific equity begins with building the capacity to empower people to develop their potential locally,” he says.
“As a student at the University of Ghana, I realized there were major obstacles facing research in Africa or in Ghana, and I want to eliminate these barriers for future generations,” Agbleke adds.
But Agbleke and the SIT team are aiming to change things by putting in place resources that support basic research. He has personally funded the institute, developed a supply chain for laboratory equipment and reagents, and started projects to promote local discovery.
Current SIT projects include a plant database to document local crops and their applications for food, therapy and for conservation. In March 2021, SIT received a $100,000 grant from New England Biolabs in support of this project.
The SIT team is also developing local technologies such as bacteria culture media from agricultural waste and prototyping a customizable 3D printed prosthesis for Ghanaian kids with below-the-knee amputations. The institute has constructed a library open to the general public, including primary school and high school students.
Agbleke is leading the SIT team’s efforts to build a Sub-Saharan African Genome Repository which will facilitate the availability of molecular biology tissues, plasmids, and model organisms to the scientific community in Ghana. The repository includes a fibroid database for researching women’s health and reproductive wellbeing.
“We have received support from Harvard faculty and staff while working on some of these projects,” Agbleke says. “We look forward to new partnerships and sponsorships from the MCB community.”
Over the decade, he has advocated for strong partnerships and collaborations between Ghanaian scientists and researchers in the United States and elsewhere. Agbleke worked with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to organize a virtual conference themed “Imaging Cells to Organisms for Basic Science and Medical Research” that took place on April 14, and SIT is scheduled to host the first FASEB conference in Ghana in October 2022.
“I look forward to welcoming Harvard staff, postdocs and graduate students to Ghana next year,” Agbleke says. “I am hopeful the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions would ease by then and we will be able to travel to scientific conferences again.”