photograph by Adam Cohen

Lessons from Liberia

Adam Cohen is helping Liberia jump-start its science education after years of civil war.

When Adam Cohen was a high school student in 1994, he noticed his science club advisor collecting pens and pencils dropped in the hallways. Curious, he asked why. Asumana Jabateh Randolph replied that he sent them to nieces and nephews back in Liberia, where civil war made everything scarce. As a sophomore at New York’s Hunter College High School, Cohen knew nothing about Liberia other than “that such a country existed.” When he asked Randolph if he could visit Liberia, Randolph said no—too dangerous.

In 2009, Cohen asked again. By then, he’d earned physics doctorates at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University, been chosen by MIT Technology Review as a top innovator under age 35, and was teaching at Harvard University. This time, Randolph said yes.

That summer Cohen, accompanied by his friend Benjamin Rapoport who was an MD/PhD student and fellow Hunter grad, went to the West African country to mentor science teachers. Fourteen years of intermittent war had destroyed most Liberian schools. “The question was, how do you re-prime the education pump?” recalls Cohen.

He and Rapoport began by teaching the germ theory of disease. They fashioned Petri dishes by cutting the bottoms from water bottles and filling them with gelatin scavenged from stew pots. They showed local teachers that students could culture microorganisms from their fingers in the gelatin and then compare cultures from washed and unwashed hands.

To teach math, the two worked out low-tech experiments, “things you could do with no electricity, no running water—just your body, and counting.” For instance, children measured their heart rates before and after jumping jacks. Cohen remembers two children so weak from malnutrition they couldn’t jump. “That was quite an eye opener,” he says. The men added nutrition to their curriculum.

Lessons on electricity came after they heard that someone had fried the nation’s only x-ray machine by connecting it to the wrong generator. They taught teachers and students to build batteries from limes, iron nails, and copper wire. “You’d feel a little jolt if you touched the electrodes to your tongue,” Cohen recalls. “It was fun.” In 2010, the two men returned to lead a workshop for science teachers at the University of Liberia in Monrovia.

Since then, Cohen’s research has ramped up, and he hasn’t been able to visit Liberia again. An HHMI investigator at Harvard since 2013, Cohen develops tools to study molecules and cells; for example, his group devised a technique to convert electrical impulses in cells into flashes of light. The flashes allow scientists to visualize how drugs affect the cells, creating “a clinical trial in a dish.”

Using their all-optical electrophysiology technique, the Cohen Lab has been able to map electrical impulses propagating through nerve cells.

The scarcity he saw in Liberia reminds Cohen to appreciate his own circumstances. He remembers that, when he visited in 2009, the average Liberian survived on $300 a year, while “we’ll drop 300 bucks for a little mirror without thinking about it,” he says. “I’m more conscious, of course, of how fortunate we are here.”

Cohen asks his students to consider how science and engineering might remedy such inequities. “Sometimes there’s a misperception that to make a difference, you have to go into activism, or law, or politics. I try to show them that good engineering and good technical approaches will not always suffice to fix problems like the ones people face in Liberia, but they can make a big difference.”